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AFEW HOURS into the NHL free-agent season on July 1, Marian Hossa, the exceptionally talented 29-year-old winger and cream of this year's free-agent crop, had some options. The Penguins, for whom he had just completed a luminous postseason that ended two wins short of the Stanley Cup, had offered to pay him $35 million over five years. The Canadiens, the Eastern Conference regular-season champs, had also presented a lucrative multiyear deal, as had the Wild and the Rangers. The Oilers were ready to give Hossa more than $80 million over nine seasons. "I thought about it all for a while, and then I called my agent," says Hossa, who was coming off a three-year, $18 million contract and was at his home in western Slovakia. "I told him, 'Let's go with the Red Wings.'"
Cup champion Detroit had made an offer, too—though, hamstrung by salary-cap issues surrounding its star-laden roster, it was essentially a rhetorical one, well below the deals that might have kept Hossas in tall cotton for generations. "Sure, Hossa was on our wish list," says Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "In our fantasyland." General manager Ken Holland acknowledges he was "stunned" when, upon answering his cellphone on the morning of July 2, he heard Rich Winter, Hossa's representative, say he wanted to work something out. A few hours later Hossa was bound for Detroit. The terms: one year, $7.45 million, the same salary, but expressly no more, than what Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom earns.
Indeed, as Hossa's impending free agency loomed, he wrote a list of qualities he sought in his next employer. He wanted a respected, stable organization ( Detroit, an Original Six franchise, has had largely the same management team since the early 1990s); he hoped to be around outstanding veteran players he could learn from ("like Lidstrom and [Chris] Chelios," Hossa says of Detroit's future Hall of Fame defensemen); and he thought it might be nice to have a Slovakian pal on the team (Wings third-liner Tomas Kopecky lives minutes from Hossa back home; "When we'd work out together," says Kopecky, "I'd say to him, 'Come to Detroit! Come!'"). But of all his criteria, Hossa says, one superseded the rest: "I wanted to win the Stanley Cup."
HOSSA GREW up in Trencin, a city of some 55,000 people that was founded in the valley of the River Vah at the beginning of the second millennium. A fortified Roman castle, dating to the 11th century, remains perched on a cliff overlooking the city. The hockey's good there. Hossa's father, Frantisek, played in the Czechoslovak league and later coached the Slovakian national team in the 2006 Olympics. He put Marian and his younger son, Marcel, on skates shortly after they could stand. As Marian's mother, Marika, has said, "Hockey always came first, before everything else." (Marcel, an NHL forward for the past six seasons, is now playing in Russia.)
Competition is keen in Trencin, a region that has also yielded current NHL stars Zdeno Chara and Marian Gaborik, among others. Young players dream of winning the Slovak Extraliga title—the championship of the country's top professional league—which Marian Hossa did at age 17 with HC Dukla Trencin. Yet even in his medieval city the NHL's chalice has a hold. "It was raining the day I had the Stanley Cup in the square [in nearby Bratislava]," says Kopecky, who drank locally made tripe soup from it. "Really raining, with thunder. And there were still 3,000 people there. I know Marian wants to bring that feeling home too."
Hossa says that since winning the Extraliga title, being drafted at No. 12 by Ottawa in 1997 and winning the Memorial Cup with the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks, he has had "a big hole" in his career. His six-plus seasons with Ottawa and two-plus with Atlanta before being dealt to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline on Feb. 26, produced four NHL All-Star Game appearances, 299 goals and 648 points, but only the one trip to the finals, last spring. "At first I thought winning was easy; you just do it," says Hossa. "You don't realize how hard that is, and how much you want that feeling—of your teammates being all around you, and you're with them and you've won this trophy—until you've had it and then you don't."
FOR ALL the riches that were to be lavished upon him, his compelling statistics and the immensity of his skills, Hossa is still viewed by some league evaluators as a complementary star, a rung below the league's elite. His gifts are unquestioned: great speed, formidable strength (he's thickly built at 6'1" and 210 pounds) and a release so quick and deceptive that Babcock describes it simply by letting out a low whistle. Yet Hossa could never elevate the loaded, usually favored Senators in the playoffs, and his only exceptional postseason—his 26 points in 20 games for Pittsburgh last spring included the overtime goal that eliminated the Rangers in the second round—came while he was playing on Sidney Crosby's wing.
In choosing Detroit, Hossa spurned not only a bigger payday but also a Penguins team that includes Crosby—the captain ran into Hossa after the season and asked him to stay—22-year-old scoring star Evgeni Malkin and enough other young talent that, even without Hossa, could keep Pittsburgh in contention for years. Instead, Hossa joins the NHL's deepest team and, with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, gives the Red Wings three of the league's top forwards.
Other players have accepted less in recent years to play for Detroit. Lidstrom's contract puts him several million short of what he could earn under the league's single-player cap, at once freeing funds for other stars and imposing a value system. Forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary and defenseman Brad Stuart have all sacrificed pay to be on a winning team that plays an appealing, high-energy, puck-possession style. Still, none of those players were resisting the lure of tens of millions (or the courting by Crosby); Hossa's doing so may help him, as a 20-minute-a-game player, ease into a veteran and exceptionally close-knit locker room. "Of course guys notice what he was willing to do to be here," says defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "Does it make us quicker to welcome him? Maybe it does."