DULUTH - To Bob Hartley, Marian Hossa is more than just an NHL all-star. Much more.
As far as the Atlanta Thrashers' coach is concerned, Hossa is the leading candidate at the midseason break for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
"You can make cases for other players, but there is no doubt in my mind as his coach that he is a MVP," Hartley said after a practice at the Duluth IceForum last week. "Hoss is the most complete player in the NHL."
The Thrashers lead the Southeast Division of the NHL by six points over defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina and Hartley freely gives a good bit of the credit to his multi-talented 28-year-old right wing from Slovakia.
"Offensive zone, defensive zone," Hartley said, "Hoss is always on the job. He's a coach's dream. With him, it is all about winning and the team. That's why he's a MVP."
Of course, Hossa's statistics aren't bad either. He is tied for the NHL lead with 30 goals and is sixth with 63 points after 50 games.
Yet, Hossa won't be in the opening lineup for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game at Dallas on Wednesday night. Despite the MVP talk, he didn't fare well in the online fan balloting to pick the starters.
Hartley, who will be an assistant coach for the Eastern Conference, wasn't necessarily surprised by the voting.
"Hoss is a little bit a victim of his own personality," Hartley said. "He's not flamboyant. He doesn't do a big celebration after he scores a goal or say stupid things in the newspaper to draw attention to himself.
"He is a simple person. Hoss on the ice is the same person as Hoss off the ice."
Best of all, he feels at home in both places now. That wasn't the case when he first joined the Thrashers.
"It wasn't easy for me," Hossa said of being traded by Ottawa to Atlanta in the blockbuster Dany Heatley deal before the start of last season. "It definitely took me a while to get comfortable with the city, the team, the system. Everything was new."
Hossa, who came to Ottawa as an 18-year-old, had signed an $18 million, three-year contract with the Senators just hours before being traded.
"I was shocked," he said.
Hossa didn't really feel like a true Thrasher until Jan. 2, 2006, when he had two goals and an assist against his old team in a victory at Philips Arena. As Heatley was booed, Hossa was cheered wildly and had his name chanted repeatedly.
"It certainly made me feel at home," Hossa said.
"That's when the love story between Hoss and Atlanta fans began," Hartley said.
Hossa finished with 39 goals and a career-best 92 points last season, but the Thrashers missed the playoffs despite a strong second-half.
In Ottawa, Hossa had known nothing but the postseason. The Thrashers, an expansion team in 1999-2000, are still trying to make it for the first time.
"We definitely have the team to do it this year," Hossa said. "We have a lot of good players. Our goal isn't just to make the playoffs, it's to go as far as we can."
Hossa could help take the Thrashers a long way. Few players are faster, stronger or more versatile. He is not only a mainstay on the power play, but the penalty kill as well.
"I try to do everything I can," Hossa said. "I'm older now and I want to be a leader on this team."
He is, although not a vocal one. He leads by example.
"Some of the fans around the NHL may not know how good he is, but the players and coaches do," Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby said. "He's such a great skater and so strong. When he gets going, it's hard to stop him.
"Plus, he works his tail off. His desire is as impressive as his skills. He's hungry and wants to be a great player."
Hossa just doesn't crave the limelight. One of the best things about Atlanta for him is the chance at anonymity that it offers.
"Slovakia is a small country," Hossa said. "I can't go anywhere without being recognized. Atlanta is huge. Away from hockey, I can escape here. No one knows who I am."
If Hossa leads the Thrashers to a long playoff run, however, that may not be the case much longer.