THEN: Marian Hossa, acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, had three goals and four assists during last year's Stanley Cup Finals. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
This is what Marian Hossa planned for, and sacrificed for, and craved. This is exactly where he wanted to be, back in the Stanley Cup Finals with a great chance to win it all.
But no, he could not have wanted it like this.
Here was Hossa, on the eve of a terrific Red Wings-Penguins rematch, smack in the middle of a storyline so wrought with emotional themes -- redemption, revenge, betrayal -- he wasn't even sure what to say. Heck, nobody knows what to say. It's not like the Penguins hate their former teammate, a likeable guy and dynamic player. It's not like his presence on the Wings dramatically spurs the spurned and makes the young Penguins want the Cup even more.
It's just so unusual, even weird. When does this ever happen in sports, that one of the best players on the losing team in a championship series jumps to the winning team, then immediately collides with his former team in the next championship series?
It doesn't happen. And when I asked Hossa if he regretted how it happened, and maybe wished the Penguins weren't here to amplify everything, he answered diplomatically.
"Regrets? Not at all," he said. "I've got the chance to go to the Final and win the Cup. If I wish the Penguins would not be in the Final? Well, that's a difficult question. But to tell you the truth, they're here and they deserve to be here because they're one of the best."
'We all moved on'
Give the guy credit. He didn't want to fib. But he knows what everyone knows: The Penguins' presence puts his amazing gamble -- signing with the Wings for one year at $7.45 million instead of staying with the Penguins for five years at $35 million -- into a whole new dangerous realm.
I doubt it'll affect Hossa on the ice, even when he gets booed in Pittsburgh. Late in the Chicago series, he began to dominate again, powering to the net. I also doubt it'll affect the Wings. They need Hossa more than ever, with Pavel Datsyuk not fully healthy and the Penguins loaded with firepower.
In some ways, I feel bad for Hossa, who tried to do the right thing as a free agent. He didn't leap for the biggest pile of cash. He chose Detroit -- see, some people still choose Detroit -- because in his words, "I was looking for the best chance to win the Stanley Cup."
By most objective measures, he was right. The Wings are defending champs and favorites to beat the Penguins again. But the margin definitely has narrowed as superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have gained experience and the Penguins have adopted a more-aggressive style under new coach Dan Bylsma, similar to how the Wings play.
And now Hossa's words have followed him to the big dais. He handled it well Friday, smiling and deflecting the attention. His former teammates expressed no bitterness. His current teammates shrugged at the issue.
This is a story with a centerpiece of one. And if it's bothering Hossa, he sure isn't showing it.
"We don't even talk about it -- the only people that bring it up are the media," Dan Cleary said. "When you're a superstar like he is, you're mentally strong. And I can see it in his eyes now. I thought he was unbelievable the last two games. He's so focused, and that's really hard to take away when someone burns for it like that."
That was part of the thinking when GM Ken Holland took that unexpected call last July and learned Hossa wanted to sign. Here's a guy who turned 30 this season, had never won the Cup, and would bring a healthy hunger to the champs.
Perfect. Except that now, he transfers a bit of hunger to the Penguins. Crosby was unruffled Friday, even though he'd tried to woo Hossa when both were vacationing in the Bahamas after last season. The two have talked since, and if ill feelings exist, all parties are burying them.
"At the time, it was disappointing, because if you'd asked me right after the season, I'd have said 100 percent he was coming back," Crosby said. "No hard feelings or anything like that. We all moved on."
Hossa would love to move on, except there's this little matter of Decision Validated or Decision Mocked.
'It was a difficult decision'
Last year with the Penguins, he had a superb postseason with 26 points. With the Wings, he was great in the regular season, started slow in the playoffs, but now has six goals and 12 points, and seems to be shaking the pressure.
Just in time to face more, eh?
"It was a difficult decision," Hossa said. "You know, it came down to two choices, and I could be a good scout because I picked the two best teams right now. Obviously I've had a great time here. Hopefully, I made the right decision."
It was an interesting and risky one, although he will get paid -- Holland certainly hopes to sign him long-term.
For the Penguins, it's not really about Hossa's decision to leave. He was in Pittsburgh less than four months, and free agents leave all the time.
It's about the reason -- the best chance to win the Cup. That has to miff the Penguins even slightly, although Hossa was eager to explain himself further.
"There was another reason I chose this team, because it had the experience to help me learn something new," Hossa said. "So it was not just about the best chance to win, because Pittsburgh had an unbelievable team. That's why it was so difficult."
Difficult then, difficult now. The stakes in Hossa's Gamble have gone up, for sure. But if the Wings win this thing, the payoff should be that much higher.