DETROIT – It was the summer of 2002 and Curtis Joseph was intent on finally getting the chance to lift the Stanley Cup. So one of the NHL’s most high-profile free agents decided to join the reigning Cup champions by signing a contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
A similar scenario played out this summer when Marian Hossa shocked the hockey world by spurning lucrative, long-term offers from Pittsburgh and Edmonton to join the Red Wings. He’s likely only going to spend one season in Motown because of salary cap considerations and has repeatedly said that it’s a tradeoff worth making because his best odds of winning a championship are here.
It’s basically Stanley Cup or bust.
“You look around and there’s lots of talent in this room,” Hossa said Thursday before his regular-season debut with the Wings. “Lots of big names on paper. We just have to make sure we put it all together and start winning hockey games.”
He watched the Red Wings celebrate in June after they beat his Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game Stanley Cup final and couldn’t help but wonder what life would be like in Detroit. When Hossa became an unrestricted free agent on July 1, agent Ritch Winter talked to several NHL teams but his client had his heart set on one.
No one was more surprised at Hossa’s interest in the Red Wings than GM Ken Holland, especially as word spread of big offers from the Penguins and Oilers. Detroit simply couldn’t match the term of those deals because it has several key players to re-sign after this season, most notably Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg.
Everything came together quickly after Hossa spoke to Detroit coach Mike Babcock and decided one year with the franchise was better than nothing. That set the table for a special season in Hockeytown USA.
“This was the year we were able to win the Cup and then add a superstar player,” said Holland. “No matter what happens this season we’re losing players (next year). Hossa’s unrestricted, Zetterberg, (Johan) Franzen, (Mikael) Samuelsson, (Tomas) Kopecky, (Jiri) Hudler is restricted and will be looking for a raise.
“So we’re going to have to identify two or three of those guys and we’re probably going to lose a couple. We have no choice. So it’s probably a one-year window of opportunity to put this type of team together on paper. Now let’s see what happens on the ice this season.”
Starting with Thursday’s regular-season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hossa hopes to make the mighty Wings even stronger.
He’s a former 100-point player who was limited to 66 points in 72 games last season. It’s reasonable to expect that total to be higher now that Hossa will have the chance to play with guys like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and some of Detroit’s other skilled forwards.
With Hossa joining the same core of players that won last year’s Stanley Cup, the Wings have been a popular pick to repeat this season. Everyone in the team’s dressing room is well aware of it too.
“I think these guys feel the pressure all the time because they’re such a great team and people expect them to win,” said Hossa. “Adding me here, obviously the pressure is going to be even higher. But you know what? There’s so many professional guys that went through this before.
“I don’t think they even care about it.”
The Red Wings want to do all they can to make sure it doesn’t get to him personally.
There is sure to be some scrutiny on the 29-year-old Slovak, especially if he starts the season slowly or goes through a slump. The pressure to produce will be high.
“We’ve talked to him a lot about that already,” said Babcock. “We said: ‘Just play the game and we’ll fix things tomorrow.’ We play a simple, simple system with simple structure. Just find your game within our game and he’s going to be able to do that.
“One of the things about getting going here is that his skill is going to come to the forefront and his work ethic. I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
It’s a view shared by captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
He liked the fact Hossa was so open about his belief that playing in Detroit gave him the best chance at winning. As far as he’s concerned, it’s good for a player to put himself out there like that.
“I think he embraces the challenge,” said Lidstrom. “It was his choice. He could have went for a long-term deal elsewhere and gotten the security and everything. But he wanted to come to us to have a chance to win.
“So I think that comes with pressure, playing for the Red Wings and playing for the defending Cup champs. That adds pressure. But he’s been around a long time and I think he embraces that challenge.”
While that is certainly true, Joseph’s experience in Detroit provides a cautionary tale.
The veteran goaltender, who is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was part of winning teams during his two seasons in Detroit but never got past the second round of the playoffs. There are no guarantees – even with the Red Wings.
“Unless you win the Stanley Cup here, they don’t settle for anything less,” said Joseph. “There’s nowhere else like it.”