Pavel Datsyuk's wisdom, whimsy and wizardry on full display in KHL
MOSCOW – "What about Pasha?" the agent asked.
Pasha? As in Pavel? As in Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings superstar?
Sergei Fedorov couldn't believe it. As the new head manager of CSKA Moscow, the fabled Central Red Army club, Fedorov had told Datsyuk months before to keep him in mind if there was an NHL lockout. But even though Fedorov was once a Detroit superstar himself, he never thought he would have a chance. He assumed Datsyuk would join one of his former teams, Ak Bars Kazan.
"What about him?" Fedorov asked the agent. "How's he doing in Kazan?"
"There is no Kazan."
Fedorov still couldn't believe it. Sitting in his spartan office at the Soviet-era rink on Leningradsky Prospect, Fedorov was supposed to be talking to the agent about another center – the Toronto Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski. It wasn't going well. Maybe this was a ploy.
"You're joking," Fedorov said.
"Nope. I'm offering you."
"I don't believe it, but let's talk about it."
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The agent explained why Datsyuk was not going to Kazan. Ak Bars had decided not to sign players who couldn't commit to the entire season. That way, the team would not be disrupted if the lockout ended and the NHLers returned to North America.
This was serious. Datsyuk was available.
"I'm in," Fedorov said.
* * * * *
Now it was late October, and Fedorov couldn't believe his good fortune. It was a month-and-a-half into the NHL lockout, and CSKA was fighting for first place in the Tarasov Division of the Kontinental Hockey League. Datsyuk, the magician, had brought his full bag of tricks.
Datsyuk used his unparalleled puck skills to weave through traffic with ease on the larger European ice surface. He set up the game's first goal, whipping a pass from the corner to the slot for Grabovski, his buddy, who ended up signing after he did. He scored CSKA's next goal, smacking in a rebound. Then he assisted on the eventual winner by Alexander Radulov, as CSKA beat Sibir Novosibirsk, 4-2.
But that wasn't all.
After the game, Datsyuk stood in the dressing room, surrounded by black-and-white pictures of the great players of CSKA's past – including his idol, a former Detroit teammate, Igor Larionov. He met with the Russian media.
A little while later, he walked into the front lobby, still wearing a red undershirt soaked with sweat. As one of his teammates held a camera, he signed a Red Wings hat and took a picture for a fan. It was his teammate's mother.
"Everybody," Fedorov said, "sort of kneel down towards his game, his attitude."
This was why having Datsyuk, even for an indefinite amount of time, was too good to be true.
[Slideshow: #NickInEurope photo diary, featuring Datsyuk, Ovechkin and Malkin]
There is his talent, of course. Datsyuk is both the most entertaining player and most complete player in the NHL, when he is, you know, playing in the NHL. He has here-you-see-it, now-you-don't moves. He also has you've-got-it, now-you-don't defensive skills. He has won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward three times.
In 13 games with CSKA, Datsyuk has 16 points and a plus-6 rating, averaging more than 21 minutes a game.
But Datsyuk also has tremendous marketing and leadership value, especially because Fedorov is trying to build atop CSKA's foundation, trying to turn the old Soviet powerhouse into a modern professional franchise for the future.
Datsyuk has so much charisma and character that his sense of humor and leadership skills shine in Detroit, despite the language barrier. But because he struggles with English, he still keeps a remarkably low profile for a player of his caliber. You have to know him to fully appreciate his sharp, self-deprecating wit. He leads by example.
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Here, it all can come out in full.
He can play in front of his own people, who usually have to watch him on TV at odd hours. He can connect with kids.
"I like to play home, for Russian fans," Datsyuk said. "They miss us, too, because we play during the nighttime [in NHL]. Not everybody can watch and work. And I speak Russian language. It's easy for me. …
"Lots of kids watching us. Sometimes they a little bit shy, but we teach them, 'Don't be shy.' "
He can speak to the Russian media. He can speak up in the dressing room. And he can still lead by example, showing the others what went into winning two Stanley Cups in Detroit.
"What I see off-ice, that's the Red Wings school, no doubt," Fedorov said. "Pavel's exceptional. Everybody saying, 'What you gonna do without Pavel?' My answer: 'We're gonna just die here without him.' We're gonna fight, fight, fight. But we're gonna die here without him."
* * * * *
Detroit is dying a little without Datsyuk right now, and Datsyuk is dying a little without Detroit. Asked if he missed Detroit, he did not hesitate.
"Yes," he said. "A lot."
What about it?
"Hockey," Datsyuk said. "Fans. Locker room. People. It's tough a little bit. After over 10 years, you kind of change atmosphere, it's a little bit different."
Datsyuk has played for the Red Wings and lived in the Detroit area since 2001 – except, of course, for the '04-05 NHL lockout, which he spent with Dynamo Moscow. He has won a lot of games. He has made a lot of friends. He has made Detroit his adopted home.
He said he is not following lockout news.
"Remember, Russia is closed country," he cracked. "Nobody knows what's going on."
"No," he continued. "Too expensive in Russia."
Just Datsyuk being Datsyuk.
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He turned serious.
"I can't do anything," he said. "Why I need know?"
If he knows, he will just worry. People will just ask him questions. He will just have to talk about it and think about it some more. There is no point.
"Save my time," he said.
But maybe that's why Datsyuk wanted to play here, so he wouldn't have to sit around, so he wouldn't have to dwell on it, so could make magic in another place he loves.
He said he isn't comparing the KHL to the NHL. He is just enjoying the hockey, playing with Russians against Russians for Russians for the most part, while learning about some young players he didn't know before.
He is having fun. You can tell by the way he plays.
"It's hard not to enjoy and play the way he plays," Fedorov said.
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You can tell by the way he jokes. Does he like the big ice?
"It's too much skating," said Datsyuk, 34. "I'm not too young anymore. I need more energy."
Doesn't it help him make more moves?
"I have too much room," he said. "After I make a move, I have long way to skate to net."
You can tell by the way he smiles.
"It's awesome when you play at home," he said. "Always awesome."
Perhaps most of all, you can tell the way Fedorov smiles. Pasha? Fedorov still can't believe it.
"Everything has to do with me," Fedorov laughed, sitting in the same office where he met with the agent. "Of course, I am kidding. I happened to be at the right place at the right club at the right time."