Marian Hossa is about to find out if the hockey gods have a twisted sense of humour.
Last summer, free agent Hossa left the Pittsburgh Penguins to join the Detroit Red Wings, less than a month after the reigning champion Wings had ousted the Pens in the Stanley Cup final. Reflecting on the decision to go to Detroit, Hossa said it was a matter of sheer practicality; he wanted to play for the team he felt was most likely to bring home the big prize.
"It was a really tough decision for me to make," the 6'1 Slovakian said of his choice at the time. "When I compared the two teams, I felt like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit."
How fitting, then, that the 2009 edition of the final will pit Hossa against his former team when the Red Wings and Penguins clash for the second straight year, starting with Game 1 on Saturday.
This time Hossa will be wearing red and white, leaving some hockey fans to suggest that - for the Penguins - playing against their former teammate will give them the added incentive they need to win Lord Stanley's silver this time around. There is talk that this is a chance for Pittsburgh to bury the man who deserted their team after a failed Cup run and hop right over to a team he thought was more of a sure thing. And it's become a common angle in the media that Pittsburgh is out to punish Hossa and make him regret the move.
Even the Pens' Maxime Talbot got in on the action ahead of Friday's series opener, saying, "there's nothing I'd like more than to be able to shake Marian's hand at the end of this series, look him in the eye and say, 'You chose the wrong team.'"
Talbot's comment aside, the rest of the Penguins' roster has been mum on the issue. And NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire says that, for the most part, revenge is very unlikely to provide any kind of motivation for the Penguins.
"You can't do that if you're Pittsburgh," says McGuire. "You've got to worry about Henrik Zetterberg, potentially Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula and Darren Helm. There are so many other weapons, so if you concern yourself with just Hossa, then you're losing sight of what the real goal is, and the real goal is to win the Cup, not to beat up Hossa."
Clearly it has been a good campaign for both teams in the wake of Hossa's migration. He had a very successful year in Detroit, putting up 71 points in 74 games in the regular season as the team finished with an impressive mark of 51-21-10. The Pens didn't exactly struggle in his absence, wrapping up the year with a record of 45-28-9 on the strength of play by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, among others.
"If you look at the succcess that Pittsburgh has had since Marian left, and if you look at the success that Marian has had since he left, I think it's probably a wash," says McGuire. "It's paid off for both sides."
So it all comes down to who plays best over the next four to seven games. It can't be denied how much is on the line personally for Hossa. By June 12 at the latest, either the heartbroken Penguins will have lost two years in a row to the same team (making Hossa look like a genius as he will have achieved exactly what he set out to do), or Hossa will have the tables turned on him by the Penguins.
When it comes down to it, McGuire says, both teams are probably smart enough to look beyond one man and focus on the bigger picture.
"I think the (Pens') coaches are enlightened enough to say, 'You know what? This isn't about Hossa, this is about Pittsburgh versus Detroit and we want Pittsburgh to win," McGuire explains. "And Detroit is saying, 'Marian, don't worry about the Penguins, you're a Red Wing now.' You lose sight of the goal, you're not going to win."
And Hossa knows the stakes. He joined the Red Wings after turning down offers for more money from numerous teams, all for the sake of winning it all. It could potentially blow up in his face, but no matter what happens, he'll have to do his best to avoid the circus and stand by his choice.
"If he's mentally tough, there'll be no distraction," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said of his star forward on Wednesday. "He made a decision to come here and he's happy with his decision. I know we're happy."
Time will tell if the hockey gods will get the last laugh at Hossa's expense. But for now, it's the fans of the game who can enjoy one of the key backdrops to the Stanley Cup final.