Hawks winger Marian Hossa looks up at the linesman after he was called for offsides in the third period. The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 Sunday January 27, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: October 29, 2013 6:15AM
Marian Hossa took a few purposeful strides down the ice, reined in a cross-ice pass from Michal Handzus and slipped a slick little shot past Nikolai Khabibulin. Hossa hadn’t practiced in nearly two weeks. Yet he hadn’t missed a beat.
“[Handzus] and I were talking how funny it is — he hasn’t practiced with the team, he puts his gear on a couple weeks later and there’s no rust at all,” linemate Patrick Sharp said. “He just steps out and is ready to go.”
If only it really were that easy. Hossa’s all-world hands, vision, talent and hockey IQ are always there, always ready. But his body is another matter. And closing in on his 35th birthday, with a nerve issue in his back that seems destined to linger, it likely will be for the rest of his career.
“Rest of my life,” he sheepishly corrected.
So there’ll be extra time in the trainer’s room. Extra time stretching. Extra time on the massage table after games. And, yes, maybe an extra injection or two in his back, like he had over the summer to avoid surgery on his back after the affected nerve caused his foot to occasionally go numb during the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s getting hard to make it look so easy.
“I definitely know I have to come a little bit early and do extra stuff to warm up,” said Hossa, who won’t play in Saturday’s preseason finale against Washington but is still expecting to play in the season-opener on Tuesday. “But I think at my age, lots of guys do that. Before that, I just came and just played, I didn’t have to do much. Now I have to come a little bit early, and that’s a normal thing.”
Of course, entering his 15th season, Hossa really doesn’t need all that much practice. Coach Joel Quenneville’s priority is to keep Hossa — as well as 35-year-old Michal Rozsival and the 36-year-old Handzus, both of whom have been dealing with their own injuries during the summer and in camp — rested and healthy. That’s going to mean skipping practices here and there, limiting ice time when warranted, and even holding them out of games from time to time.
Everyone wants to play every game — Hossa has played at least 78 of 82 games eight times, including 81 as recently as 2011-12 — but the Hawks are playing a long game here. Being ready come spring is what matters most.
“Whether it’s the frequency of games, or back-to-back games, or it’s ice time, we’ll consider a lot,” Quenneville said. “Practices, for sure — as a team, as well.”
Hossa admitted he would have liked to have gotten into some preseason games. He opened camp at Notre Dame saying he wanted to take a few hits to see how he’d hold up, then found himself sidelined just a few days later. But as Sharp said, Hossa’s not a guy who really needs all that much work. When he’s healthy, he’s always in midseason form.
After all, Hossa played in 40 of 48 games last season, posting 17 goals and 14 assists with a sparkling plus-20 rating. He played in 22 of 23 playoff games, tallying seven goals and nine assists. And he did all that without a preseason thanks to the lockout, while coming off a major injury (a severe concussion), no less.
“We did it last year,” a grinning Hossa said. “It worked pretty well.”
NOTE: The opening-night roster is coming into focus. On Thursday, Joel Quenneville suggested that Michael Kostka had the inside track on Ryan Stanton for the eighth defenseman spot. On Friday, he sounded like he had settled on unheralded rookie Joakim Nordstrom for Michael Frolik’s old fourth-line/penalty-killing role. Quenneville said nothing was set in stone and that Saturday’s game could still play into the decisions, but the safe bet is that Kostka, Nordstrom, Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith will make the team.