Playing With A Heavy Heart Ottawa's Marian Hossa has floundered since accidentally injuring an opponent

April 23, 2000

Marian Hossa would rather not talk about the accident. The
Ottawa Senators left wing will, however, talk about anything
else. As his teammates filtered out of the dressing room after
practice last Friday, on the eve of a 5-1 loss to the Toronto
Maple Leafs in Game 2 of an Eastern Conference playoff series,
Hossa sat in his stall and spoke of the 800-year-old castle that
looms over his native Trencin, Slovakia. He spoke of the
clothing factory where his mother, Maria, worked as a designer.
In fractured English the 21-year-old talked about his first
season in North America, 1997-98, with the Portland Winter Hawks
of the Western Hockey League; his teammates were "great guys"
who taught him English and only occasionally got mad on long bus
trips when he kept asking, "What did he say?" while they watched
movies on the VCR.

The words pour forth until the conversation turns to Maple Leafs
defenseman Bryan Berard. A muscle in Hossa's jaw twitches as he
stares across the room, and tears well in his eyes. Hossa will
not remember his second NHL campaign as the one in which he
became a rising star in the league. He will remember it as the
season in which he possibly terminated the career of Berard. In
fact, Hossa will never forget the events of March 11, 2000.

The Leafs played at Ottawa's Corel Centre that evening, and with
less than five minutes remaining in the second period, Hossa was
in the Toronto zone. Play was moving up ice, but there was a
turnover and the puck came rolling back to him. Unaware that
Berard was behind him, Hossa spun and swung awkwardly at the
puck. On his follow-through the heel of his stick struck the
right eye of Berard, who fell to the ice and lay kicking in
agony, bleeding profusely from a half-inch laceration across the
eyeball. He was rushed to Ottawa General Hospital, where doctors
operated that night. According to Berard's agent, Tom Laidlaw,
the physicians came close to removing the eye. "They were having
difficulty stopping the bleeding," says Laidlaw. "They didn't
think there was much chance of saving the eye."

Since then Berard has undergone two additional operations, and
now he can discern light and shapes. At home in Cranston, R.I.,
now, Berard hopes to regain some vision and resume his career.
(NHL rules prohibit someone who is blind in one eye from
playing.) Nothing would make Hossa happier than to have Berard
back on the ice.

Hossa's career was threatened when he blew out his left knee in
his last game as a Winter Hawk in '98. Torturous as that rehab
was, the hardest thing Hossa has ever done was walk into
Berard's hospital room on March 12. As Berard lay in bed, his
eye heavily bandaged, he extended his hand to Hossa, who
tearfully told him he was sorry, that it had been an accident.
As Hossa wept, Berard was gracious, telling him, "It's not your
fault. Stuff happens."

Hossa, however, was not easily consoled. Following the accident
the normally gregarious Hossa became subdued, his play
tentative. After scoring 27 goals through March 11, he had only
two in the remaining 13 regular-season games. "There's no
question it weighed on him," says Ottawa assistant coach Perry
Pearn.

Maria traveled from Trencin to visit her son, and Hossa's former
coach in Portland, Mike Williamson, phoned. Hossa's teammates
tried to boost his spirits, and he was helped by Ottawa scout
John Phelan, who has a master's in psychology. "Of course he's
going to feel bad," says Phelan, "but you have to get past it.
You see guys do things with intent to injure. This was
accidental."

Though it was obvious that Hossa did not intentionally injure
Berard, some observers feel that Hossa nevertheless was reckless
and deserved to be suspended. The rules state that players must
be in control of their sticks. That Hossa allowed his stick to
rise too high, with tragic consequences, will forever haunt him.
Asked last week how often he thinks of Berard, he looked
miserable and said, "It's getting better."

In the second period of Game 1 against the Maple Leafs last
week, Hossa had a chance to tie the score after picking a
defenseman's pocket and then deking Toronto goaltender Curtis
Joseph to the ice. But Hossa failed to finish the play when the
puck dribbled off his stick on the backhand. The Maple Leafs won
that game 2-0, and Hossa's missed chance was mentioned
frequently the next day. Pearn says that Hossa made "a great
play to create that chance. He was a half inch from scoring a
brilliant goal. In a split second he can change a game."

Hossa knows too well what else can change in a split second.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT

As Hossa wept, Berard, his eye heavily bandaged, told him, "It's
not your fault."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)