Whenever we have a chance to speak with Pavel Datsyuk, the star center of the Detroit Red Wings, it's an honor. Not only because he's one of our favorite players to watch, but because he's one of the NHL's most thoughtful players, who dodges clichés like he's dangling around defensemen.
I spoke to Datsyuk last week about the upcoming playoffs, NHL rules changes, Alex Ovechkin and Alex Radulov, and other League topics. But as you'll read, our conversations went in many other interesting places, including:
• His early hockey years, including wearing figure skates and a locker room fight.
• The people with whom he'd most like to have dinner.
• The evils of hockey camps.
• His favorite sport other than hockey.
Q. Which actor would play Pavel Datsyuk in a movie?
DATSYUK: I honestly don't see an actor who could do that, an actor who is so goofy and pale. It'd be tough to be that goofy.
How do you feel about HBO cameras following you around before the next Winter Classic for their 24/7 show?
I really liked those shows. I didn't watch all the episodes, but the ones I saw I really enjoyed. And if they follow me around, I just have to be myself. I don't want to be seen as someone I am not. I am just going to be me, who I am every day. I won't change for the cameras. If you try to be fake, people will notice it right away.
You have been to the playoffs very often. How do you approach each one? Do you still get nervous?
I wouldn't say that I get nervous. But you sense that these last games leading to the playoffs are different in terms of atmosphere. Some seasons the feeling was 'I can't wait for the regular season to be over and for the playoffs to start.' And when the playoffs start, you are not nervous, you feed off of the atmosphere of the playoffs, the arena, everything that goes on outside of it.
You get a little nervous right before the opening faceoff. When that puck drops you get a rush of adrenalin and fans feed it to you. Especially the noise of the home fans in Detroit takes you away somewhere and you try to soak it in and enjoy it as much as you can.
If you were to pick one, who would you be: Mayor of Detroit, President of Russia or NHL Commissioner?
I'd have to pass on all of the above. These jobs aren't exciting to me.
Who would you be if you weren't a hockey player?
I would love to do something creative. To be a designer, for example. I'd be an interior designer, or a clothes designer. Or maybe I would invent something. It's also possible I'd work in advertising creating various slogans.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Will you still be playing?
I hope not. One of my dreams is to build sort of a hockey facility for kids in my home town in Ekaterinburg. I'd like to have three or even four ice rinks where kids would be able to practice. I hope my friends and other people and organizations will help me build this facility for children. Kids are our future and this facility will develop a pool of good young players.
You hold hockey camps for young players in your home town. Do you face a lot of challenges?
It is an expensive venture. Ice is very expensive. People only say that they would help with organizing this: local hockey authorities, sponsors… There are people who help with something specific: like donating a car. But nothing more than that. I will never go somewhere to beg someone.
I am also shocked that other kids' coaches are jealous of our camp. They think that we take their bread. But it's the opposite. We are trying to help them. Let them come to our classes, share their experience. I am shocked by their mindset. I am faced with the fact that coaches blackmail parents whose kids play hockey.
What do you mean?!
They say 'If you go to Datsyuk's camp, we will play your son on the third or fourth line. Of course parents care about their children, don't take them to our camp even though kids themselves want to come. My friends decided to hold a camp this winter, work out with children. A lot of kids signed up. And then a friend calls me and says '15 people declined, their coach prohibited.' These people don't let kids go to other coaches and don't do anything themselves.
My advice to parents — run away from these coaches who don't want your kids to develop and advance. This is a dead end.
You are wearing number 13. Why did you pick the Devil's Dozen?
I have actually always liked this number. I think there is something magic about this combination of numbers. Some people may be afraid of this number. Besides, not every number has its own name. I used to play bingo when I was younger and always like numbers with names — like "drumsticks," "grandma," "grandpa."
But I didn't always play wearing 13. My first number was 7 on my very first team. In junior I wore number 10. And when I joined Ak Bars I was given number 13. And I have been playing wearing 13 ever since.
You studied French in school. Parles-tu français?
The story was that in school we were asked to pick whether to study English or French. I rushed to join the English class. And English classes were full. My mom was friends with our French teacher. And she said 'Let Pavel join the French class and I will help him.' And my mom convinced me to take French. I couldn't even imagine at that time that I would need English so much.
How good is it? Would you be able to give an interview to RDS in French, for example?
The way I studied it… You should know… It was such a long time ago that I forgot everything. I should have studied Russian better instead.
You also learned a lot of other skills during your childhood. What is the story about you and your father bending hockey sticks above the gas stove to create the right curve?
Yes, at the time there wasn't much to choose from. We had to work with what we had. We'd take a hockey stick and work with it. They were all wooden back then. And we'd use the gas stove to heat up the stick to create the curve I liked, the one that fitted me best. I can tell you more. This practice continued even when I was in junior team. We'd cut the shaft to customize sticks, sharpen edges, curve them. We'd even use planes to create the right shape of the stick. Even now I sometimes curve my own sticks to create the right one to send to the makers to manufacture sticks for me. The sticks that come back are of the highest quality.
The customization of hockey sticks wasn't your only experiment. Tell us about your first skates…
It was when I was playing on my very first organized team. It was my neighborhood team. When I was a little boy I always thought that whenever I start playing for a team I'd be given hockey skates, a real hockey stick. I didn't think about other equipment at the time, only about skates and sticks. But that didn't happen. Not even a notion of anyone giving anything.
So I ended up playing wearing white figure skates.
I ended up playing quite a few games wearing figure skates. It was very upsetting to hear all of the people watching games yelling to me 'Hey, figure skater!' I was very young and it bothered me.
But maybe that's the reason you skate so well.
Maybe there is some truth to that. It's actually very easy to skate in figure skates. It's easy to push. You feel like you can run on your toes.
How much furniture did you destroy at home practicing shots?
Well, my dad and I used to play hockey in our living room. True, there were some things broken. There was one vase that was special to my sister that I broke. I tried very hard to glue pieces back together. It stood on the table for some time and then my sister noticed and I was in trouble. But most of the practice took place outside anyway.
Is it true that when you were your junior team captain and another player wanted to take over, the team put you against each other and told you two to fight?
It wasn't exactly like that.
That guy and I used to take the same bus to practices to a different part of town. And one day he and I had a fight in the locker room. And our teammates blew it all up and put us against each other. There were more guys on my side and I felt very confident. So we had another fight with him. But we have since become friends again and are actually very close now.
At the same time other guys started showing true leadership qualities. I was a captain for some time. But then it was taken away and given to someone who is now my best friend. The coach just told us 'Now we have a new captain.'
Did you get upset?
Not really. Quite the opposite. That "C" was an extra weight on my jersey. It was a lot easier to play without it. I think it depends on a person whether being a captain adds pressure or gives that extra energy. I think whenever a coach tells you 'You're the captain! You're the leader! You should lead this team!' it adds that extra energy, a player tried to give it his all on the ice.
Sometimes, however, one can try too much and go over the top. A player can try to do too much on his own thinking it's for the best. But that's when it can go wrong and that pressure starts mounting because you can't do it all alone at this level. This means that whoever is wearing the "C" should seriously consider everything that comes into play."
Is it true that your mother didn't get to see at least one game you have played?
At the professional level, yes. But I think he is watching over me right now. The older I get, the more I realize how much I need my parents, how much I miss them. I miss my mother's love and that special connection.
Did you see the Giroux penalty shot in a recent game? The one he named "The Datsyuk?"
Yes, I saw it. It's very, very flattering. Thank him so much. It feels very good. I am very happy. No other words to describe it.
Besides a shootout move, what else could be called Datsyuk?
I know people call their pets Datsyuk. I have heard of cases when turtles, lizards as wells as cats and dogs were named Datsyuk.
You are a two-way forward. Is it fair to say that as a player it is fun to score goals and boring to play defense?
Sure, some may say that. But it depends on how you see things. Playing defense actually is an intellectual challenge. It is a mental game. It is fun to make people nervous. You can get someone upset by your defensive play when they realize that things aren't going well for them offensively. Of course it is fun to score goals and create offense. But playing defense can be just as interesting. Besides, I don't know any team that won something without defense.
What are your thoughts about the possible return of the red line?
Just not long ago I heard about it. I don't think it will make things better in terms of injuries. I think it will make things worse. Right now there's more space and you don't need to get the pass at the red line. But if things change and you have to be by the red line, there will be a lot more players crammed in that little space between the blue and the red lines. The would in turn lead to more injuries in my opinion.
Look, you can write any rule you want. But everything is caused by something else. Everything depends on us, on hockey players. It depends on how we treat each other, how much respect we show each other. Of course emotions sometimes take over. But there were cases when it led to someone's career being jeopardized.
Is it fair to say that defensive hockey rules in the NHL right now? After all, all of these changes to the rules after the lockout were meant to increase offense. And we're seeing a decline of it.
I wouldn't say that defensive hockey rules, but it is true that it's getting more difficult to score goals now. I think we have to go back to the goalie equipment size, the way it was before. I think that will make hockey more interesting. Goaltenders are already quite big and tall, over 6 feet. Add to that oversized equipment and they become so big that it becomes extremely difficult to score.
A straight question: Why has Ovechkin's performance deflated so much?
Who says that he's deflated?
Here's the thing: people expect a lot of him. He raised the bar and now the expectations are so high. But it doesn't mean he's deflated. Everyone is expecting 50 goals from him. But it is impossible to score 50 goals every year, because other teams take a more personalized approach playing against him every year.
I just don't think he's deflated. I just think people expect too much from him because of the bar he set. And now you see everyone thinking that he plays bad if he doesn't record a point in a game. But no one looks at the good he brings to the team without getting points. A player can add a lot to the team without scoring points. A lot is expected from him and it's tough.
What are your thoughts on Alexander Radulov's return to Nashville?
I think he will fit in, but I think it will take him a few games to adjust. I think it will take a few games just to get that feel for the NHL back. I am sure it will be interesting to watch because this is unprecedented.
Did you get at least a little bit upset that you got injured while you were still among the leaders in points and that will now prevent you from winning the Art Ross, for example?
The most important thing is to win another trophy and not the Art Ross. I hope not to win an Arthritis Trophy?
Of course there is a little disappointment. At the time I was up there, but it was obvious it wouldn't be for long after the injury because the race was so tight. But the regular season is difficult and long and it is tough to get through it without injuries. It's good that this injury happened before the end of the season with some time to go giving me a chance to fully recover to the level I have to be at come playoffs.
But let's look at it from a different angle. I am now rested for the most important stretch of the season. I should have plenty of strength and hockey "freshness" and I am already hungry for hockey.
What other sports, aside from hockey, do you enjoy?
I really love soccer. When Messi and Ronaldo are on the pitch it is something special. I also like tennis. I really loved watching it especially the last few years with Nadal, Federer and now Djokovic.
I also really like watching lacrosse. I got into it here in Detroit. The game is pretty intense, players bump into each other, push each other. It's a pretty tough sport. Also the way they can throw the ball: from behind their back, from between their legs. Also, they throw this small ball with such force and they aren't wearing any pads or anything.
I also like American football. But only the playoffs. It's tough to watch an entire game. When you're watching on TV or at a bar, you have a chance to talk to your friends during the breaks. But in person there are so many breaks in play, it takes some time for teams to come up with plays before each snap.
If you had a chance to have dinner with any person you wish, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I would really want to have one more dinner with my parents. What would we talk about? It's too difficult to say. I think we would just sit and look at each other. It would also be great to have dinner with Winston Churchill. I think he was a great speaker and I love his quotes. I think he would be a very interesting person to have a conversation with.
What is the most expensive thing you have bought in your life?
I think it was Robin Sharma's 'The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.' Not expensive, but dear. It changed my perception about a lot of things.
What is the most beautiful word in Russian language?
And in English?
[after taking a while to think] "In my opinion it's the word 'Believe.'