When I had the opportunity to speak with Marian Hossa earlier this week, one of the subjects we discussed was his relationship with a player he spent a lot of time with on and off the ice. I would argue the best defensive line in the NHL during Hossa’s time in Chicago was when he was skating with Jonathan Toews. And the two developed a relationship that goes beyond the ice.
Hossa told me even before he signed with the Blackhawks, he could see something special in Toews and Patrick Kane. There was a strong group of young players around them, but those two “had something extra.” He said how they conducted themselves on the ice and around the rink, they were both always working to get better. And that impressed him out of two players who, at the time, were still teenagers.
Once he was a Blackhawk, Hossa learned more about Toews on and off the ice. And the chemistry developed quickly.
“When I joined the team we clicked pretty much right away,” he said. “It was pretty easy playing with Toews. You could tell Johnny would always do anything for the team and I like playing on a team and a line with those kinds of players. We had similar styles. We liked taking care of our end first and then worry about offense. We tried to play the right way.”
Hossa was an established player when he joined the Blackhawks. He had appeared in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, first with Pittsburgh and then with Detroit, but came up short in both series. The Blackhawks touted Hossa’s skill and leadership when they signed him; he was the guy who was going to help that young group take their games — and the franchise — to the next level.
And he did that.
But when he arrived, Toews was already the captain of the team. It could have been easy for Hossa to want the “C” on his chest, but he told me he never cared about being a captain. He played the game the right way and led by example, and he did that immediately in Chicago.
After Wednesday night’s game, Toews was asked about Hossa. And his comments about how his game complimented Hossa’s, and how he learned from Marian, echo what Hossa told me about the Blackhawks’ captain.
“I was always one of those guys that was able to compete hard every night by using that emotion, almost to a detriment,” Toews said. “And I think watching Hoss over the years, you realize it’s possible to play really, really hard and work hard and still have that even-keeled graceful manner in the way you do it. Hoss is one of those guys, he was just smooth in whatever he did, he was talented, he was smart, he was really skilled on the ice but his work ethic was another thing as well.”
Competing hard every night — every shift — while carrying the burden of being the captain of an NHL team at such a young age was something about Toews that impressed Hossa early on and continued to as they spent the better part of a decade together. Hossa told me that was one of the things that made Toews and Sidney Crosby similar. They were able to take on the responsibilities of being a captain and play at a superstar level, successfully, at a young age. And that was rare, in Hossa’s eyes. He played with both and thought both were remarkable in their ability to carry the “C” so young.
But something else Hossa said really struck me. He said he and Toews knew they could do more offensively, but the choice they made was to lead from the defensive end forward.
“Obviously we love to score goals when we’re playing offense and that builds confidence, but we knew our qualities and we knew if we play right defensively we’ll create a lot of offense,” he said. “Most nights we played the right way and tried to not get carried away from that style and we were successful that way. We could have achieved more offensively and scored more goals but that would have sent the wrong message to our teammates.”
It speaks volumes to Hossa’s character, and Toews for that matter, that they were more concerned about leading the team by playing the game “the right way” than their individual numbers. But if you’ve watched this team for more than a hot minute that shouldn’t surprise you.
Many fans forget that, between the start of their careers in 2007-08 through the 2011-12 season, the only skater on the Blackhawks who scored more goals than Toews’ 144 was Patrick Sharp (154), and Sharpie played in ten more regular season games during that period. Kaner scored 126 goals and appeared in 38 more games than Toews during that span.
But it was always about the team first for Toews and Hossa. That’s how each of them approached the game, so being together made them a strong force on the ice for a dynasty in Chicago. And made them friends off the ice as well.
“While we were spending so much time on the same line our friendship became stronger,” Hossa told me. “To this day we text and call each other and I check every morning to see how the Blackhawks are playing.”
It might feel odd for Toews and Kane to see one of their teammates having his jersey retired on Sunday afternoon, but for Toews it will serve as recognition that playing the game the right way matters. And for Hossa, it’s the culmination of a career that took him to the Hockey Hall of Fame.