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Berard left Mount Saint Charles after his junior year, convincing his parents he needed to face the stronger competition in major junior hockey to reach the NHL. In his first season for Detroit he fought Wayne Primeau, now a 6'3", 225-pound power forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I thought I was a pretty tough kid until major junior," says Berard. "Then I realized that wasn't my game."
His game was initiating offense from the back line, and scouts saw that he was the complete package: size, skill, speed and toughness. In July 1995 Berard was selected first in the NHL draft.
Slovakia, with only 5� million people, produces more than its share of world-class hockey players. The storied Stastny brothers—Peter, Anton and Marian—became NHL stars in the 1980s, before Slovakia split from the Czech Republic. Current league standouts include Pavol Demitra of the St. Louis Blues, Zigmund Palffy of the Los Angeles Kings and Miroslav Satan of the Buffalo Sabres. In the 1999 World Championships a 20-year-old kid named Marian Hossa scored five goals in six games and left scouts wondering if he might not prove to be the best Slovakian of all.
Hossa is one of the rare players who can beat an NHL defenseman one-on-one. One time he'll feint to his backhand, the next to his forehand; a third time he'll do a head fake, then slip the puck between the defenseman's legs. Hockey is in Hossa's genes, too: His father, Frantisek, was a pro player in Czechoslovakia. Frantisek never coached his two sons when they were kids, but he helped them build the makeshift rink in the playground below their two-bedroom apartment in the western Slovakian city of Tren?�n.
That's where Marian honed his skills with his brother, Marcel, now 19, who would become the first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2000. The boys built boards out of plywood stolen from a construction site. Nearly every day after school they played four-on-four with other kids from the apartment complex. "You try all the moves, and there's no checking, nothing physical," says Marian.
Between the fifth and eighth grades Marian attended a hockey school that attracted the most gifted players in Tren?�n. At 12 he played in Quebec's world-renowned pee-wee tournament. Five years later he made Slovakia's national junior team. At 17 Hossa played first line for Dukla Tren?�n, the team sponsored by the army in the top Slovak pro league, skating against men in their 20s and 30s. When he scored five goals in six games for Slovakia in the 1997 World Junior Championships, Marshall Johnston, Ottawa's director of player personnel, was in attendance. In part because of his recommendation, the Senators made Hossa their first draft pick that summer, the 12th player taken.
Hossa played seven games with the Senators during the 1997-98 season, but he spent most of the year getting roughed up with Portland. "What am I doing here?" he would ask himself when he came home at night. He was living with an American family, trying to learn the language. He was a force—he scored 45 goals in 53 games—but needed to improve his defensive game.
Hossa's play in his own end got better, and he starred in the playoffs, scoring 13 goals in 16 games as Portland cruised to the championship. The victory, however, came with a price. In the final minutes of regulation in the clinching game, Hossa was hit with a leg check that tore both the anterior and medial cruciate ligaments in his left knee. He was flown to Ottawa for reconstructive surgery and was told he couldn't skate again for six months. Hossa, then 19, spent less than two weeks in Slovakia that summer. The rest of the time he lived in a hotel room in a city where he knew virtually no one, lifting weights and rehabilitating his knee. It was the loneliest time of his life. But it proved a blessing because by that fall he'd put on 12 pounds of muscle, and the shifty European was suddenly difficult to knock off the puck. When the knee healed, Hossa was in the NHL to stay.
If negotiations had gone differently, Hossa and Berard might have been teammates on the Senators. But Berard, who was also drafted by Ottawa, couldn't come to terms with the team, and he returned to the junior ranks in September 1995, two years before Hossa arrived. Berard put together another outstanding season in Detroit, finishing with 89 points in 56 games, and was named major junior hockey's defenseman of the year. On Jan. 23, 1996, the Senators, who realized they weren't going to strike a deal with Berard, traded him to the New York Islanders, who signed him to a three-year contract.
The next season the 19-year-old Berard scored 48 points for the Islanders and appeared on track to become one of the league's star rearguards. "Things came easily that first year in the NHL," Berard says. "I didn't work out as hard in the off-season as I should have. My second year I started guessing too much. I'd always depended on my speed to make up for my mistakes, but I couldn't do it at this level."