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GREGG KRUPA

Krupa: Datsyuk's legacy untarnished despite awkward parting

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Red Wings Pavel Datsyuk celebrates the winning goal in front of San Jose Sharks'  Patrick Marleau in the third period during NHL playoffs in Detroit, April 25, 2016.

Detroit — When you are not having fun, do something else.

Athletes often say that, anticipating their retirement. The late Gordie Howe gave the advice to his sons.

But what would cause Pavel Datsyuk to end a brilliant Red Wings career with such a messy resignation, leaving the franchise he said Saturday he loves and fans he said he loves with a strong possibility of a salary cap reduced by almost 10 percent, $7.5 million, because he is walking away with a season left on his contract?

The biggest reason, as the Wings’ GM Ken Holland said Saturday, is “his heart’s not in it.”

Turns out, it was less in it with each passing season since the lockout canceled the 2012-13 season.

They may write and say that Datsyuk retired from the NHL, Saturday. But he will not retire from hockey, and it feels a lot more like he resigned.

Datsyuk was not having fun playing for the Wings, and for at least seven seasons he nurtured the desire to play in Russia, his homeland, before family, friends and countrymen. But there are other reasons for the untidy “retirement.”

His ankle injury in 2015 remains a problem, and something that always was far more serious than admitted publicly by player or organization.

We still do not know, and Datsyuk says he does not know, if he can ever regain the brilliant quickness and deft deception which, along with exceptional defense, are trademarks of his career.

He did not like the current, constrained play of the North American game, but also annul the creativity and improvisation he may flash again in the Russian’s Kontinental Hockey League, if his ankle allows.

That said, playing her was a lot more enjoyable when the Red Wings won more.

No more Stanley Cups

The “rebuild on the fly” that was supposed to afford Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg another shot at a Stanley Cup after Nicklas Lidstrom retired has not succeeded, and indications are it will not anytime soon.

Add to those hockey reasons the considerable importance of family to a man who always kept two holy icons on of the orthodox Christianity in his dressing stall. Datsyuk is concerned about a 14-year-old daughter growing up with his former wife half the world away.

All of that trumped leaving his only NHL team and its fans possibly – indeed, at this hour, probably -- saddled with a $7.5 million hole in a roster struggling to stay viable for the playoffs.

Make no mistake: This is a messy exit.

But life is messy, and modern life even more so.

'Time to go home': Pavel Datsyuk leaves Red Wings

When it came to managing a career, the collision of the passing of time, his health, family and an athlete’s need to have fun with his sport all added up to one motivation for Datsyuk: Change.

And it has been a long time coming.

Holland said Datsyuk even came to him shortly into the 2014-15 season, the first on the three-year contract from which he walked away Saturday, and said that would be his last season.

The deal had just been negotiated.

From then until Saturday, as Holland described it, the Wings fought a rear-guard action to keep him playing.

The effort included, Holland said, threatening to invoke a provision of the collective bargaining agreement that would prevent Datsyuk from playing in the KHL last season, as long as the terms of his NHL contract had not expired.

But after getting one more injury-affected season out of Datsyuk, the Red Wings decided they will not keep him from playing in the KHL this season, Holland said.

Why not make him stay?

“His heart’s not in it,” Holland said, as a matter of fact.

“I don’t have any hard feelings, not towards Pav. He’s a great player.

“He gave us 14 years of incredible hockey. He never complained, he just played hard.

“He is a 200-foot player.

“I’d like him back for another year. But at the end of the day I understand why we’re standing here. And I’ll deal with it.

“I’m going to deal with it the best way that I can. But Pav gave us 14 great years.

“I have no ill will whatsoever to the Pavel Datsyuk camp. He was a great Red Wing.”

Holland ‘not optimistic’ about dealing Datsyuk’s contract

Indeed, he was.

The muddled departure should not, I believe, affect the overall appreciation of his stellar career, every game played for the Red Wings.

The measurements of Datsyuk’s performance do not require an asterisk, so to speak.

But there will always be the parenthetical assertion that his departure was a jumble, his resignation risked considerable harm to the franchise and he walked away from the Red Wings with enough left in the tank to continue playing.

Should it prevent his No. 13 from being lifted into the rafters five or six seasons, hence?

No, it belongs there.

Unlike Sergei Fedorov, Datsyuk gave the Wings years of notice and never walked away to play for an opponent.

And his career numbers prove something beyond any reasonable doubt, despite the persistence of some prejudice against skilled Europeans in the NHL: Pavel Datsyuk is one of a half-dozen or so of the greatest Red Wings.

He won two Stanley Cups.

He is sixth in Wings’ history in points (918), eighth in games played (953), seventh in goals (314), fifth in assists (604), he won three Selke trophies as top defensive forward in the league and four Lady Byngs for combining sportsmanship with performance.

(He also fought Corey Perry early in the next season, after the fourth!)

Datsyuk could change a game with his offense, and his defense ranked with a few of the elite defensive forwards in the game. He brought us out of our seats with his deft deception carrying the puck and had us shouting when we craftily took it from opponents.

He will almost certainly enter the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 2019.

Homesick blues

And there is one thing he did lousy: Time his goodbye.

To hear Holland tell it, Datsyuk and his first agent originally started negotiating for a five-year contract, on his last deal, and Holland reined that back to three.

Then, within months, Datsyuk was saying he was done in the NHL and wanted to go home.

In walking away, he made a simple statement of gratitude, speaking near his long-scheduled hockey camp at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, not far from his home for 14 seasons in Metro Detroit.

“I’d like to thank the Ilitch family, Ken Holland and management, our coaches and the rest of the staff, my team mates and opponents, my second home the city of Detroit and most importantly, our loyal fans.

“My family and I are grateful for our time here in Detroit.

“This was not an easy decision. But it’s time for us to return home.”

Asked for memories he will cherish, Datsyuk did not say the two Stanley Cups, any team achievement or any personal one.

The greatest one, he said, “Probably it’s the first time when I came into Detroit.

“It’s the most emotional memory.

“It’s a different country. I’m young. Different hockey, different language, different everything together.

“But it’s good God gave me a chance to change me, so that I’m not scared when I come here.”

And then, in the intervening years, he delighted us all — sloppy going away or not.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @greggkrupa