Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, right, has had to juggle his Olympic and Red Wings duties, especially when it comes to a lower-body injury. (Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images)
Sochi, Russia — He is everywhere around Olympic Park.
But he was not at practice.
Alex Ovechkin may be the face of Coca Cola at the 2014 Sochi Games. But Pavel Datsyuk is one of the most prominently featured athletes on the Visa mats on which visitors sign their charge slips for the only credit card accepted.
He is pictured in a hockey uniform, flying along on the ice and at the point of firing a shot when the stick blade bends like a bow.
Tell some Russian gals behind the counter you are from Detroit and talk to Datsyuk during the NHL season, and they get downright giddy.
“You are a very lucky man!” one exclaims in the nearly perfect English that many young Russian employees at the game speak.
But where was the real Datsyuk and, more importantly, will he play for a Russian team on whose fortunes ride the national pride of the host country?
Russian coach Zinetula “Bill” Bilyaletdinov said he is optimistic Datsyuk will suit up in the team’s opener against Slovenia on Thursday.
“I don’t think it’s a serious problem, dangerous,” Bilyaletdinov said through an interpreter. “I think he’s going to be OK.”
Slovenia figures to be a fairly easy mark for one of the most powerful Russian teams since the NHL entered the Olympics, leading to speculation Datsyuk might sit to preserve himself for later games.
With the host country determined to rack up medals after their most disappointing Winter Olympics since the fall of the Soviet Union in 2010, and hockey a great passion, Russian reporters decided to ask the guys from Detroit.
Mike Babcock and Ken Holland essentially said they think Datsyuk will play, that his absence from the first practice in Sochi was understandable and that it is likely his injury — said to be lower body, and speculation is a knee — will require some rest on an off, through the balance of the NHL season
“Pavel’s a proud Russian who’s come home to win a medal for his country and he’s going to do everything he can to do that,” Babcock said.
“You know, he’s been injured. But he’s on his way back from injury.
“I think that there’s some opportunity for him, the way the tournament’s set up, to spend more time to get feeling better. And I think good for him.”
Datsyuk returned to the Red Wings lineup recently for two games after missing a month in the wake of the game against the Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium. Just before that game, he appeared to suffer his second injury after a possible concussion in November.
His long absence spurred a debate among fans in Detroit about whether Datsyuk should play in the Olympics, especially if he did not return to the lineup before them.
Holland said that because of the injury Datsyuk has suffered, looking for chances to rest it likely will be a priority until the Red Wings stop playing.
“I think with the injury he’s been battling really since late December, you know I think probably for the rest of the year every opportunity he gets to take a break, I assume he’s going to take a break,” Holland said.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Holland recalled that Steve Yzerman had a similar experience in 2002, when he did not play regularly for the Red Wings before the Olympics, then played in the Olympics, and then not for the rest of the season until the playoffs.
A vivid memory of many of the Red Wings players on that Stanley Cup winning team is Yzerman, having been knocked down to the ice, using the butt end of his stick jabbed into the ice to help himself get up.
But, Holland added that Datsyuk’s problem obviously is not that serious.
“I don’t think that’s the situation with Pav,“ he said. “I know he’s battling a bit of an issue there, and I’m sure he’ll take every opportunity he can to rest it.”
Holland made clear he understands the situation Datsyuk is in, despite its potential impact on the Red Wings.
“I guess I understand it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “You know, in his hockey lifetime, the Olympics will never be in Russia, again. He’s the captain. He’s probably been preparing for this two-week tournament five, six years ago when it was announced it was coming to Russia.
“I’m sure if he couldn’t play, he won’t play.
“I’m hoping, obviously, when we come out of the tournament that he’s ready to go for us. You’re trusting that they’re going to make the decisions that they know their body and he knows the challenges both in this tournament and when he comes back to Detroit.”
There is little the Red Wings could do, regardless.
What brings the NHL players to the Olympics is an agreement among the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the league and the players association. It was all part of the collective bargaining agreement that ended the owner’s lockout of the players during the last season.
The players agree to make themselves eligible, the NHL agrees they can go and the member countries of the IIHF pick the roster.
By contract, the Red Wings have no say.
As for not skating at practice, Babcock was utterly unsurprised.
“We got home at two in the morning after playing in Tampa. We were on the flight the next morning, I don’t know, maybe at 8:30 or something. You know, you travel all night and the next day. It’s been two tough nights.
“So I don’t think whether he practiced today or not would be any indication.”