'What's hockey?' Just watch Marian Hossa
Hossa and his girlfriend caught a bite at a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta when the waiter was intrigued by Hossa's Slovakian accent, one that's not often heard in the Deep South.
When the waiter asked Hossa what he does for a living, Hossa replied, "I play for the Atlanta Thrashers."
There was a moment of silence, then the waiter said, "Who are the Thrashers?"
Hossa replied: "They're the hockey team, the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team."
The waiter smiled and said in a serious tone, "Oh what's hockey?"
That's when Hossa knew he wasn't in Ottawa anymore.
He also knows it when he goes to the shopping mall or supermarket. He's never recognized. There is something to be said about having your privacy.
Since being traded to the Thrashers for Dany Heatley in August 2005, Hossa has moved on, but he told me it was tough for him at the beginning, taking almost all of last season to get used to the idea of playing in Atlanta. When Thrashers fans started chanting his name in a game late last season, it was when Hossa truly felt at home. Now, he loves the Southern city.
Those warm, fuzzy feelings have intensified this season. Heading into Friday's games, Hossa leads the league in scoring with 15 goals and 15 assists in 20 games in his eighth season, leading the Thrashers to a 12-5-3 start to lead the Southeast Division. It's the kind of start the team did not have last season after it went through a rash of goaltending injuries (the Thrashers started five different goaltenders over the first few weeks of the 2005-06 campaign).
But hey, that's history. Hossa is looking ahead. He said there's nothing he'd like to accomplish more than help lead Atlanta to its first playoff berth. "That's my goal, that's what its all about," he said. And he has the experience to get them there. He went to the playoffs in all of his six seasons with the Senators, the pinnacle coming during the 2002-03 postseason, when Ottawa made it to the Eastern Conference finals, only to lose to the Devils.
Hossa is just one piece of the puzzle, which doesn't look like it's breaking apart anytime soon. It seems to just be getting stronger.
When I asked Hossa's teammate, 15-year veteran Bobby Holik, to talk about what it's like to watch Hossa play, he said, "He is a rare player. He is never a liability to his team. Not all talented superstars in the NHL can be useful in any situation, but Hoss is. He does not have a weakness in his game."
A strong statement coming from a guy who's seen his fair share of talented hockey players.
Take a look at the scoring leaders and you will see Hossa along with teammates Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov, all within the top 5. Holik said the explosive trio is so successful because "everyone else on the team is doing their respective jobs."
"The goalies are stopping the puck, the penalty killers are killing penalties, the players taking faceoffs and [are] winning faceoffs, the players capable of throwing their bodies around are throwing their bodies," he said. "Plus, better decisions are being made at key times. All of this and more allows our stars to do what they do best, and that is shine."
Shining to the tune of a combined 14 goals and 16 assists in the last five games alone.
But offense alone doesn't get you a playoff spot.
The Thrashers found that out last season, when they came up two points shy of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. The defense, led by Niclas Havelid and Andy Sutton, has been solid. They are currently 14th in goals allowed (2.95) compared to 24th last season. Then again, the Thrashers didn't have a healthy Kari Lehtonen last season. If the Finnish netminder can remain injury free throughout the season, there's no reason the Thrashers can't end the league's longest-running playoff drought at six seasons.
If that happens, Hossa, Holik and the rest of the Thrashers can forget about that privacy thing. Instead of flying under the radar, the Thrashers won't be overlooked in their own hometown.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.