The Magic of Pavel Datsyuk

Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings

Pavel Datsyuk has a strength and resilience that makes him invaluable to the Red Wings.

Okay, hockey fans. Run – don’t walk – to your TV screens, and look for #13 of the Detroit Red Wings.

His name is Pavel Datsyuk, and all things being temporary in this life, you best enjoy him while you can as the latest in a line of phenomenal players who have worn the deep red and whitest white of the local club. You may waste time arguing whether he is the ‘best’ player in hockey today, but what is beyond contention is that there is no player remotely like him. He is among the most remarkable and phenomenal players of modern times, or any times, of the game … and if you appreciate athletic brilliance at all, no matter the game, you must admire the style and touch of Datysuk, Russia’s finest gift to hockey.

The bad news is that Pavel is 33 years old. Not to panic, but the seasons of Datsyuk will slowly close down over the years to come. And that is sad. As a hockey player, as an athlete, he is an artist, a dancer … looking more suited for ballet than ice hockey. He came to Detroit as a deferential and shy kid with bowed legs and the posture of a question mark. He looked too gentle, too sensitive, to play such a violent and cruel game.

When we first set eyes on him in 2001, he looked like he was playing his own game on the ice. The other skaters were playing hockey … Pavel was skating around by himself, holding the puck so no one else could do anything violent, or cruel, to it. The other skaters were incapable of getting the puck away from him so they could continue with their game. They eventually had to chase him down and knock him around to force him give it up. Head down, as always, he would return to the Red Wings bench, and await his chance to come out and play his own game with it again.

What no one could have foreseen in his rookie year was that young Pavel had a rod of steel up and down his spine. Likely his winters of outdoor skating in Russia had given him the kind of toughness that his presence belied … and that his emergence as a player confirmed. As the little gnome developed, he showed an increasing toughness, a hard-nosed determination to KEEP that puck with which he played his own game; to meet force with force. Only his opponents were more surprised than we.

And did we say ‘little?’ Okay, here’s a fact for you … for you longtime Red Wings fans anyway … that may floor you. Or at least leave you in denial or doubt. But believe it. Here it is: Pavel Datsyuk, the little Russian … is roughly the same size as Red Wings legend Gordie Howe. Yup, Gordie Howe, the greatest, and toughest, hockey player of all time. The current Red Wings roster lists Datsyuk as being 5 feet, ll inches and 198 pounds. Not a little guy, yes?

The official press book of the 1946-47 Detroit Red Wings records rookie Gordie Howe as measuring in at 5’ ll” and 185, though subsequent listings put him at 6’ and 205 pounds. He never went beyond 205, though many seasons saw Howe walk out of the Wings locker room after their final playoff game at under 180 pounds. And it’s true. Little Pavel is roughly the same size as the guy called — on one bubblegum card — the “Giant” of the 1950s NHL. Hell, Sergei Federov was bigger than Gordie Howe. But back to Pavel.

Datsyuk had a beginning in the NHL similar to Howe’s. He managed just 11 and 12 goals in his first two seasons … then a respectable 30 markers in 2004, his third campaign. Gordie recorded just 7, 16, and 12 goals in his first three Red Wings seasons, breaking out with 35 in his fourth year, 1949-50. Of course, Gordie was only 18 when he broke in with the Wings; Pavel was all of 24 when he first came to Detroit.

If you find it odd that I’m comparing #s 9 and 13 here, there’s a method to the madness. It is no stretch, and no offense to Steve Yzerman, or Ted Lindsay, to list Datsyuk and Howe as the two most stylistically unique players to ever wear the Winged Wheel. Again, let’s not talk “good” nor compare value. I would defend Howe as the greatest hockey player of all time until that farmer Dwayne Gretzky (is that his name?; I always get it confused) walks the cows home from the back pasture.

Local fans have seen fabulous play from the likes of Yzerman, Lindsay, Federov, Lidstrom, Marcel Dionne, Red Kelly over the years at the Olympia and the Joe Louis Arena. Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, Roger Crozier. We have been blessed in Detroit with talent rivaled only by possibly the Montreal Canadiens over the past 80 years.

And the point is … that of these literally phenomenal players, these masters of the ice … only Datsyuk and Lidstrom are still performing before our fortunate eyes. And the sheer artistry of Datsyuk cries out for recognition as he sails into the performing twilight of his singular career. Nick Lidstrom has been recognized and hailed from here to Falun (it’s in Sweden; I looked it up) and properly awarded his place in local history and lore. Pavel, whose career — as a forward — will not run as long as Lidstrom’s, will be gone in what will seem like no time at all.

And boy, will he be missed.

So get him, dig him, behold him while you can. We will not see his like again. As with Howe, he has come to us as a blessing. When he orchestrates one of his marvelous — as the TV announcers like to describe them — “Datsyukian” plays or moves on the ice, he is giving us something we will see from no one else; he is showing us something we will not see in the years and decades to follow. Dance moves we could never conjure; small surprises all over the ice that we can never forget.

Pavel the unexpected. As was Gordie. All of the greatest ones are truly unexpected. You say Gretzky and Crosby were expected? I repeat that the greatest ones … are truly unexpected.

Keep your eye on #13. He won’t be there on your TV, in our town, in red and white, forever. People are always looking for wonderful things to say about Detroit; stuff the locals can brag on. How’s this? “Detroit, Michigan, USA … home of #13 … Pavel Datsyuk.”