Pavel Datsyuk wants to go home. His career has been here. His wealth has been here. His celebrity has been here.
But his heart is somewhere else. It’s in Russia — with his teenage daughter and his roots, both of which he wants replanted into his life.
“I’m thinking I go home after this season,” he said, in a long discussion at the Northville home of his agent and friend, Dan Milstein. “I may not be done with hockey, but — it is hard to say — I think I am done playing in NHL.”
While this may be a shock to fans, it cannot be to the Red Wings. The truth is, Datsyuk has been squirming to go home since 2012, the year he played in Russia during the NHL lockout. Last season he basically told Detroit he was finished, and only the length of his contract, terrific persuasion by general manager Ken Holland and personal involvement from Mike and Marian Ilitch convinced him otherwise.
The tug now, he said, is too strong. He wants his family united. And he wants to end his professional career in the country that taught him the game. Datsyuk, who will be 38 this summer, still has a year left on his Detroit deal, and will have one more discussion with Holland before taking formal action — presumably after the Wings are done with the postseason they qualified for on Saturday. So in theory, the door still has a sliver of light peeking through.
But after two hours with the reserved Russian superstar recently, it was clear his heart and head are already back home.
“I have overstayed,” he said.
‘I feel very bad’
Datsyuk, notoriously quiet off the ice, agreed to this interview (conducted in both English and Russian translation) only if the story did not run until after the Wings’ regular season was over, not wishing to distract from the challenging goal of making the playoffs. After the Wings qualified Saturday (thanks to a Boston Bruins’ loss), Datsyuk said via phone: “Because of the rumors out there, I wanted to clear this up now before the playoffs started so I can focus only on giving my best playoff performance. And I wanted the fans to hear it from me, not someone else.”
News began to leak last week that Datsyuk might return to his homeland, perhaps to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Datsyuk downplayed the reports, as did the Wings, but Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena, after a pregame presentation for reaching 600 career assists, the home crowd began to cheer, “One more year! One more year!”
That had an effect on Datsyuk, who sometimes employs a goofy poker face to hide a surprisingly emotional core.
“It was a very tearful moment,” he admitted Friday, through his agent’s translation. “If national anthem didn’t start playing when it did, I would have visible tears in my eyes. It was very difficult. I really appreciate fans very much.”
Still, Datsyuk knows that when he departs, their affection might be tinged with resentment, since he’d leave the Wings with a $7.5-million hit against their $72-million salary cap, effectively employing an empty locker for a year. Because of a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement, teams who sign players to multiyear deals after age 35 are liable for their money against the cap even if the player leaves or retires.
Datsyuk’s deal kicked in when he was 36.
“I feel very bad about it,” said Datsyuk, who is walking away from that $7.5 million. “Looking back, I wish I had done a year-by-year contract, not a three-year contract. I stayed (last year) in respect for Ilitch family. I don’t want to leave team in disaster. But if I have to do over again, I would sign a different deal. I didn’t realize it at the time.”
‘Not an easy decision’
Datsyuk and I first spoke about his possible departure nearly a year ago. At that time he was already strong in his desire to rejoin his daughter Elizabeth, who is being raised in Russia by Datsyuk’s first wife, Svetlana. While the former couple enjoy a friendly relationship, Datsyuk said, he felt too absent from the day-to-day affairs of his child, and worried, as she entered adolescence (she is now 13) that he wouldn’t be there for guidance.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said last May. “It did not happen yesterday. I talk with my daughter all the time. I see how she misses me, how she misses my advice…I want to come back and be closer.”
At the time, Datsyuk faced a formidable hurdle with two years left on his deal. He was still a major force on the Wings, one they didn’t want to give up. And the cap hit would have been disastrous. After numerous discussions with Holland and a lunch meeting with the Ilitches, Datsyuk tentatively agreed to return this season. He went back to Russia for the summer.
Then a strange thing happened. Datsyuk complained of continued soreness in his right ankle — the result of what he and the team thought was a puck-related injury near the end of the season. The Red Wings took quick action, and arranged for surgery in North Carolina with Dr. Robert Anderson on June 26. Datsyuk returned to America.
“It was supposed to be 45 minutes,” he said.
Instead, according to Milstein, who was present along with Wings trainer Piet Van Zant, it took more than four hours. As the time passed and the surgery continued, a worried Milstein notified Holland. Van Zant notified Mike and Marian Ilitch.
Finally, when the doctor emerged, it was learned that “both of Pavel’s tendons were completely gone, destroyed; they had to use cadaver (replacements),” Milstein said. “Dr. Anderson said he didn’t think any active athlete could go through this and recover enough to go back to playing on the ice.”
He shook his head. “But Pavel did this. If it were me, I would have retired on the spot.”
In the days that followed, Datsyuk learned that Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch were waiting by the phone “for all four hours of the surgery,” Datsyuk said.
They were that concerned about his well-being.
“This meant a lot to me,” Datsyuk said.
‘I am happy this year’
It was part of why he agreed to return for this season. His respect for the Red Wings and the Ilitches is often stated and clearly obvious. But so is the Russian part of his soul. He told me a story from his childhood, when he studied French with a teacher he admired. Later, as a teen, he got to travel for some hockey games in France. While he was there, he purchased a souvenir Eiffel Tower for the teacher.
“When I give it to her, she start crying,” he recalled. “She loved France but was never allowed to go. I wanted to give her happiness, but she is crying.”
The incident stayed with him, even two decades later, a reminder of both his privilege and his obligations, including those to Russian fans who want to see him play before he’s finished.
Remember that Datsyuk, the son of a delivery truck driver, grew up in a modest three-room apartment in an industrial city called Sverdlovsk. For most of his childhood, he shared a bedroom with his older sister. Their mother died when he was 16. Hockey was almost an accident, something his father pushed more than Datsyuk did. Given his scrawny frame, few thought the young forward would amount to much, and even the Wings took him in the sixth round of the draft.
So for Datsyuk, being an NHL star was not the lifelong dream it is for other foreign-born players. He didn’t know how long he would stay when he first came to America. He regrets now that he didn’t learn English better over his 15 years here (“If I knew how it was going to go, I would more listen to people around and concentrate on learning it. I hate that I was lazy about it … I miss communication with my teammates.”)
Still, it fits in the larger picture of Datsyuk being Russian at heart, with long-term plans that always included his return.
“I will go back to my hometown,” he said when asked his summer plans, adding that his current wife and their young daughter will go with him. “It is proper time.”
I asked if he wished he had gone last year. He thought about it for a moment.
“I am happy this year,” he finally said, “but was like my heart pulled over both sides.”
‘Surgery nobody knew about’
Datsyuk admits he pushed at times this season to make it a memorable one. It was destined to be difficult. His rebuilt ankle suffered an infection around Labor Day and “I had to have it opened up again,” Datsyuk said, “a surgery nobody knew about.”
He fought through that, missing the first 15 games of the season and finally making his return in mid-November. He didn’t score a goal until his sixth game back and has only looked like his old dazzling self in patches, including a stretch in February where he was named NHL Player of the Week.
All told, statistically, with 16 goals and 33 assists, this would appear to be a declining year for Datsyuk, failing to reach 50 points while playing more than 50 games for the first time since his rookie season with the Wings in 2001-02.
Still, given his age and what he endured physically to get back, it is remarkable. Experts still declare him one of the most unique talents in hockey, a magician with the puck (thus the nickname “the Magic Man”) and an artist in seeing the possibilities each time he comes down the ice. There is a reason Datsyuk won three Selke Awards as the league’s best defensive forward and flirted with 100-point seasons several times in his career. Like other Russians to play in the NHL, Datsyuk has a vision and creativity that can be stifled by more rigid systems.
Not long ago, former Red Wings star Igor Larionov wrote an online piece claiming Russian players like Datsyuk are underappreciated.
“Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued,” Larionov wrote for the Players’ Tribune. “They’re told ‘simple, simple, simple.’ ”
Datsyuk doesn’t disagree. “It feels like it’s sometimes you must choose — you win or you be the star. I like to be with team — and be star — but with winning.”
When he returns to Russia, he was asked, will he get to do some of the “old Pavel” stuff?
But that’s not the main reason he wants to go.
‘Not about money’
Datsyuk and Milstein say there is no contract in place with any Russian teams, but they admit there have been discussions — and plenty of interest. Should he indeed return, Datsyuk plans to play at least one season for some team in the KHL, before eventual retirement that includes plans for a hockey academy for young Russian players.
“This is not about money,” Milstein insisted, and while that is a common phrase, in this case, it appears authentic. Datsyuk has instructed Milstein not to negotiate in any way with anybody, even though Holland, Milstein said, has been willing to consider some kind of extended deal and has discussed “a very, very generous offer.”
Datsyuk does not wish to even give the appearance of a negotiation. He also said that if the Wings wanted to trade his rights to another team as a salary cap dump, he would accept that, understanding that it was strictly business (Milstein said the Wings have told him that would not happen).
Both men also insist that whatever money Datsyuk might get paid in Russia is not a motivating factor in this decision, and whatever that money is, it could easily be surpassed if Datsyuk wanted to stay in America.
“Years ago, a star player in NHL came and told me about other teams in league,” Datsyuk said. “He told me how good Red Wings organization is compared with other teams. After that, I only want to stay here. I don’t want to check the water on the other side.”
In fact, the other side of the water is the one thing the Wings can’t offer. This is about geography, upbringing and pride. Datsyuk said he wants to play a last season in Russia while his skills are still mostly intact, and not “be broken down,” performing a victory lap that isn’t warranted.
‘Good steak here’
For now, the playoffs loom, and Datsyuk will likely throw all he has into this postseason, hoping, as he had hoped in returning this year, to leave the best impression he can on “all the fans who support me in Detroit.” He said some of his teammates know of his plans, but he didn’t want it to be a distraction.
What will he miss from Detroit? He seemed overwhelmed by an attempted answer, stopping and starting and shaking his head. He mentioned the players, naturally, the Ilitches, Holland and “the whole organization that put me in the comfort zone.” He grinned at memories of skating alongside Hank Zetterberg (“we are really friendly”) and Niklas Kronwall and Tomas Holmstrom (“I always knew where he was because I see him sit in his chair in front of net”).
He also says he’ll miss “the steak. Good steak here.”
But he is gone, or all but gone, barring some miracle persuasion by Holland, and fans can take him at his word or choose not to.
I would. Datsyuk has always skated to his own tune. Management and teammates gush over his talent and his attitude, and on the ice, he has done what’s been asked, even though at times it clearly ran against the type of hockey he was schooled in.
He also made an awful lot of other Red Wings look a whole lot better when he was out there. In Saturday’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers, his second-period shot was deflected off Riley Sheahan’s body into the net. Sheahan got the goal. But it doesn’t happen without Datsyuk.
With more than 900 career points, he would leave the Wings as one of the most prolific and gifted players to ever pull on the red sweater. He’s most certainly a Hall of Famer. For many fans, he is the last connection to the 2002 Stanley Cup championship team that may be remembered as the best assembly of talent in the history of the game.
But that’s just one connection. The heart is another. And when it calls, you have little choice but to answer. When these playoffs are done, there’ll be no more pulling rabbits out of hats by the Magic Man. Just a quiet bow, a final curtain, and the sound of a distant airplane, heading home.