Refreshed and retrained, Marian Hossa's focus on speed paying off

Friday January 20th, 2017

At the unfortunate cost of postseason disappointment, Marian Hossa finally fulfilled a childhood dream. He had grown up watching weekend Formula One races with his brother and father in president-day Slovakia, fixing lunches and fixating on the television. “Back then we knew which racecar drivers [were] with which team,” Hossa says. “So we were really into it.”

The most prestigious on the F1 circuit is the Monaco Grand Prix, held early each summer in the gorgeous seaside principality attached to the southeastern edge of France. From home across the continent, Hossa always wished he could attend. It was the pinnacle of the sport, and a surefire party to boot. But since he currently plays right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks—and since the Chicago Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups and reached one more conference final since Hossa arrived in July ’09—there simply hasn't been enough time to blend training with personal vacation.

That the St. Louis Blues bounced Chicago in seven games last April, then, was at once a bummer and a bucket-list blessing. On the one hand, the Blackhawks had endured their first opening-round exit since ’11-12, and while Hossa had scored in Games 5-7, he still entered the summer stuck at 499 career regular-season goals. On the other hand… “Before I haven’t been in May at home in such a long time, and the Monaco race is only in May,” Hossa says. “My buddy told me, ‘Let’s do it.’ I said ‘Okay, why not?'”

The buddy, as it happened, was L.A. Kings forward Marian Gaborik, another native Slovak who similarly had been raised on racing. His family owned six-speed shifter go-karts, which on Sundays they’d lug them to the local track after studying the pros on TV. (“It was good inspiration,” Gaborik says. “You’d go 0-to-60 in 2.5 seconds, around 100 miles an hour.”) He and Hossa once attended an F1 race together in Hungary, and had become friends with Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen, but had never seen anything quite like the spectacle of Monaco. So after Gaborik procured tickets through a sponsorship contact and arranged to stay a friend’s apartment, they jetted to Monaco, joined by Hossa’s brother, Marcel, and another friend, frequented a few Irish pubs, and spent the weekend soaking up the trip as fans.

“It was just crazy expensive, different world,” Gaborik says. “The people that were there…different level. Just the prime time of everything around the race itself. We had a good hookup with Red Bull. I think they had the best house of all the F1 houses. It was like a floating Red Bull station on the water. They had a pool up top. Everything was really cool, top-notch food, good location.”

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For Hossa, the grandiose scene—or the rain-soaked race itself, in which Lewis Hamilton won and buddy Räikkönen failed to finish—resonated less than when he and his friends ventured into the pits on the practice day. Down there, Hossa remembers paying noticing how the drivers got ready. “It blew me away,” he says. “When they were in their little area, where only drivers could be, all of a sudden they call them for practice. They just open the door, focused, leave. They did not look left or right. They just went. Everything memorized. The preparation was amazing.”

Coming from this season’s oldest 15-goal scorer, a newly christened 38-year-old who overhauled much of his workout regimen to stay apace with an evolving game, an eventual Hall-of-Fame candidate who’s not sniffing 1,300 career NHL games by accident, a thick-mitted, broad-chested forward whom Gaborik calls “a horse, obviously”—the F1 drivers should consider this all high praise.

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If the curse of an early playoff exit was followed by the blessings of vacation—the highlight, Hossa says, being not the Monaco Grand Prix but a family trip to Mexico—his strength training struck a similar balance. On the one hand, Hossa was staring at an unusually empty calendar, wondering how to best optimize time entering his 18th NHL season.

“You win a Stanley Cup or you go to [Final], you have such a limited time,” he says. “I would squeeze everything in. So I decided let’s try this, I want to do it the right way, I can put everything into it, and if that’s going to show, and I’m feeling good on the ice, that’s going to be great benefit for the future.”

What he tried, essentially, was cutting back on heavy lifts and instead emphasizing speed. By now, Blackhawks strength coach Paul Goodman reasoned, Hossa’s base strength was already established; he saw little need for bench presses and deadlifts. “He’s not old by any stretch,” Goodman says, “but there are certain aspects of what I’d want to emphasize for him that would gear more towards his overall development to where he’s at now.” In other words? With speed at a premium in today's NHL, Hossa wanted to keep up.

For Goodman, this meant re-tailoring Hossa’s program. Instead of loading plates onto bars and cranking out low-volume sets, he would begin with a dynamic warmup, transition into small-space agility work—think shuffles, or sprints, or backpedals—lift weights in the middle, and finish with long-distance conditioning. Short work-to-rest ratios were emphasized, mimicking shift lengths on the ice, and everything usually got done within 90 minutes, a pace that Hossa enjoyed. “I was running when I was in school, short track,” he says. “I’m not built for the marathons. I’m built for short explosiveness.”

The toughest part, Hossa says, wasn’t enduring any individual exercise, but in translating the names of them. The English terms used by Goodman were more complex than what Hossa knew, so he hired a friend to serve as both his on-site coach and interpreter. “I’d just be sitting there, going to YouTube, thinking about what these exercises is,” Hossa says. “He trained me, studied the program day before, and he was prepared so I don’t have to worry about it. He did all the work for me, and I just follow his orders in my language. It was smoother process instead of me doing all the searching. Otherwise there would be headaches for me to do all the searching or training together. That was perfect.”

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The results were obvious, at least initially. Hossa hit 500 goals on Oct. 18, when he fought off Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald, chipped the puck off his backhand from the bottom of the right faceoff circle, and hollered his way straight to the bench where hugs and back-pats and 'f---yeahs' awaited. A United Center spotlight tailed him for his curtain call, and a ceremony was later held honoring the 44th player ever to reach the milestone. Long underrated for his defensive-zone prowess, here Hossa was getting some offensive due too. “At his age and everything he’s accomplished, the stuff he can still do,” Gaborik says, “it’s pretty amazing.”

Hossa’s surge continued through November, when he potted eight goals in 14 games, all of them at even strength. The next month, he opened with five more through his first eight games. But he still hasn’t found the net since Dec. 15, sidetracked by an upper-body injury that sidelined him between Dec. 20 and Jan. 5. Though he recently posted his first three-point game of the season, all coming on secondary helpers against Colorado, including the 600th assist of his career.

“He’s one of the best professionals, the way he carries himself, prepares every day,” says forward Ryan Hartman, Hossa’s opposite winger before the injury. “He’s always here early, even after games he’s in the gym doing some type of stuff to keep his body in shape. The way he presents himself, it helps us young guys, for sure, to learn from him.”

Indeed, only 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr has notched as many points at an older age than Hossa, who celebrated his birthday one week ago. (Both had 28 through Wednesday.) Hossa still has four more seasons left on the whopping 12-year, $63.3 million deal signed in July ’09, when he was fresh off consecutive Cup Final appearances with Pittsburgh and Detroit, and quickly made it three with Chicago. But if his summer program suggests anything, it’s that Hossa has his mind on staying fresh.

After all, he hopes there’s never time to visit Monaco anymore.

“I don't know when I’ll be home in May again,” he says. “But it was awesome.”

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