If Game 1 of the playoff series between Detroit Red Wings and San Jose was of any indication of what's to come in the remaining games, Pavel Datsyuk is going to play one of the leading roles in this drama. Out of all the Red Wings, he was the most visible on the ice on Thursday. Not only did he lead his team with two points that night, he was visible on both sides of the ice, offensively and defensively. This, of course, is nothing new, as he tormented the Sharks on a regular basis since arriving into the NHL nine years ago.
Despite playing for a franchise that we despite around here, Datsyuk has always been one of my favorite players to watch. His skill with the puck, his vision and his humor is what always kept me from completely hating Detroit. When I can, I always try to go see Detroit live when they're in town. This way I could stalk him all night.
And yet during all this time that he's been playing in the NHL, Datsyuk managed to stay in the shadow of other players and we seldom hear the story of his life. We know about Ovechkin's mom, or Malkin's parents, or Crosby's basement rink, or Zetterberg's wife. But what do we know about Datsyuk besides remembering that he was a late pick in the 6th round of 1998 NHL draft? Most likely, we don't know too much else. He doesn't give many interviews here in the States or back in Russia, and he hates to talk about himself. And yet, in the world of sports, Datsyuk's story of how he became who he is is the kind that Disney likes to make movies about.
Datsyuk grew up and learned to play hockey in a central Russia, in a city of Ekaterinburg. His mother died when he was 12, so he had to deal with the adversity of that early one. On top of that, he was always a small guy, and those who have seen him play in the youth leagues never thought too much about him besides that he could control the puck like no one else they have ever seen.
He began his professional career with the local farm club of Dinamo Ekaterinburg and was a rather ordinary player at the time. Unlike Pavel Bure, or Ilya Kovalchuk, or Alex Ovechkin, whose arrival to the scene of hockey was as hyped in Russia as was the arrival of Sindey Crosby in Canada prior to his draft, no one have heard of Pavel Datsyuk as he was approaching his 18th birthday.
It was not until Vladimir Krikunov, one of the more distinguished coaches during the Soviet and post-Soviet hockey eras, arrived to Ekaterinburg that Datsyuk's career took off. Krikunov noticed Datsyuk when the team was cross training by playing soccer, and it was Datsyuk's vision and ability to read the game that impressed the coach the most. The fact that "the boy with a twitchy walk", as Krikunov nicknamed him, could also stickhandle in a phone booth came as a bonus.
Datsyuk's role with Dinamo Ekateriburg continued to increase under Krukunov, but playing in Siberia and for one of the lesser known clubs did not help Datsyuk's exposure to hockey scouts. To increase his chances, he followed the advice of Krikunov and travelled to Moscow once to see if he can break into CSKA's roster. However, he did not impress anyone there, and when the club realized they had to pay $200 for Datsyuk's surgery on his ailing knee if he was to become a part of their roster, they told him they're not interested in signing him, and Datsyuk returned to Siberia.
Despite being eligible by age, Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997. It was one of the Detroit's European scouts Håkan Andersson that discovered Datsyuk one summer. It happened by accident, as he was in Moscow to watch the game as he was scouting Dmitry Kalinin. Andersson forgot all about Kalinin and instead kept watching Datsyuk in that game and was so impressed that he returned to Russia two more times to see Datsyuk. He still believes that he was the only North American scout that saw Datsyuk in the game prior to the 1998 draft where Pavel was picked 171st overall.
Someone else had to give Datsyuk a chance. Besides Krikunov, Scotty Bowman became another coach who had a major impact on Datsyuk's career. With Datsyuk's small size and no English language skills, he likely would not have made it past the training camp in most of the other NHL clubs. But Bowman never cared too much about the size and in the summer of 2001 he invited Datsyuk to try out one summer anyway, even when the roles of centers on the Red Wings were already occupied by Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Kris Draper. Datsyuk surprisingly made the cut, as Bowman saw the potential in the small Russian, and Datsyuk himself under the tutelage of Igor Larinov who was asked to help Datsyuk on and off the ice. Bowman still says today that Datsyuk was one of his last discoveries he's proud of.
With Fedorov leaving Detroit just two years later, Datsyuk filled the gap of a skilled defensive forward that puck possession system implemented by Bowman always required. By that time he was already one of the rising stars in the league who was known for his defensive skills, his vision for the game and his maddening stickhandling skills.
In fact, early on Datsyuk was often compared to the Brazilian soccer legend Garrincha, who to this day is considered the greatest dribbler of all time. Just like Garrincha, Datsyuk is small, and walks with a limp. The rumours prevailed for a while, that just like Garrincha, Datsyuk's one leg is shorter than the other, which explained why he was so fast and unpredictable on the ice. Datsyuk, however, said that he's read all those articles talking about his strange physique, laughed at them and he is actually an ordinary man.
Strange rumors aside, It is hard to deny that in today's game, no one can control the puck as good as can Datsyuk. Watching him in Game 1, I kept thinking that he's the only one that can compete in the NHL with Joe Thornton when it comes to protecting the puck around the boards. The difference between the two is that Datsyuk does it with his stick rather than with his body like Jumbo Joe. There were stretches during that game when the Red Wings cycled the puck for over a minute in the Sharks zone, and Datsyuk held that puck more than anyone else. This is what also makes him so lethal on the breakaways, because goalies never know what move he will pull this time. Youtube has 5 pages worth of his breakaway goals, almost every one of them is different from the other. Jeremy Roenick was quoted in the Russian press as saying that when he was with the Flyers, the team tried to imitate one of the dekes by Datsyuk and no one could do it. JR said that he almost injured himself on his attempt. According to Joe Sakic, the only way to stop Datsyuk is to play his body, but even that is difficult because the Russian is so fast.
The other player that young Datsyuk was often compared to was the former Shark Igor Larionov. Just like Larionov, Datsyuk has the ability to read the play better than most, and with his stickhandling skills, it is no wonder that he's led the league in takeaways for several seasons in a row now. When Datsyuk was asked if he thought his style of play was similar to that of Larionov, Pavel responded that he wasn't sure, because he didn't have the rearview mirror on his helmet to watch himself play during the game. Datsyuk then added that Larionov was one of his idols on the ice, and that he's as close to his skill level as he is to China.
That last answer was another reason why I've always been a big fan of Datsyuk. He's a humble guy who always wonders when asked for an interview why they want to talk to him when there are so many other better players on the Red Wings or Russia's roster. At the same time, he has a great sense of humor and is as fast at cracking jokes as he at stripping the puck away from Douglas Murray. He was once asked how his third NHL season went, shortly after it was finished. Datsyuk responded that he was dissapointed with an early exit from playoffs, but on a positive side, he was pleased when he thought about his salary that was now higher than in the previous two seasons. Can't see Joe Thornton ever getting away with this kind of statement, but that's pure Datsyuk.
Love him or hate him, but Datsyuk's story of rising to where he is now is one of the more interesting stories of his generation of players.