Krupa: Russia’s Datsyuk dazzles like Red Wing of yore

Gregg Krupa



Detroit – He played so well!

Watching Pavel Datsyuk lead his team of Russian players against the United States Saturday, bright and early TV, tested resolve.

Red Wings fans had to let him go. In the case of one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise, with his enthralling talent and beguiling, impish humor, it dumped a heap of separation anxiety.

To break the habit after 2016, and Datsyuk’s departure to his homeland, nearly required a 12-step program.

Make it 13, in his honor.

And so, a preliminary-round Olympic game, played halfway around the globe at a most un-hockey-like hour, arrived as grotesque temptation for the dependent.

What, of comfort? Maybe, at 39, the oldest player in the men’s ice hockey tournament in the Pyeongchang games would not be quite so alluring, especially after plying his trade for a couple of years in the KHL.

Yeah, well, forget about that.

Datsyuk looked like he was 26, again, except for two things: he is even smarter a third of a lifetime later, which is noteworthy given his big head start in the cunning department, and way more physical.

Sure, he played against a Team USA lineup of players from European leagues, the colleges, retirees.

And one of the guys from Datsyuk’s league, the American goalie Ryan Zapolski, proved leaky, in the dominating 4-0 win by the non-Russian Russians — dubbed “the Olympic Athletes of Russia” by the International Olympic Committee, in the wake of a state-sponsored doping scandal.

But, Datsyuk? The Russian captain sparked his team, flashed his brilliance, killed each Team USA penalty and played on the power play.

The only two-time Olympic captain in Russian history has his fellows through to the quarterfinals on a bye, pointed towards their first Olympic medal in 16 years and playing like redemption is the only cause.

For Datsyuk, who prominently placed a hinged, side-by-side photograph frame of Orthodox Christian icons in his dressing stall in Joe Louis Arena, redemption is not only a traditionally valued affair, it is a matter of faith.

Against Team USA, he practiced zealotry.

The first shift, Datsyuk gained the puck towards the sideboards on the attack in the USA zone and, with little apparent intention, flicked it drastically to his right and across nearly the full width of the vast international ice surface.

It went tape to tape.

The pass merged seamlessly with the flow of play, leading his team mate perfectly away from defenders, allowing him to keep his head up and pointed towards net.


‘Dats’ of old

Red Wings teammates and fans saw the pass from Pavel Valerievich Datsyuk often throughout his 14 seasons in Detroit.

They know how it often completely scrambled the structure of the opposition’s defense and the way he created, for himself, a vast space for when a teammate wisely returned the puck to him.

Moments later, with the puck at the feet of defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti behind the United States’ net, Datysuk arrived as if with nostrils flared. With one of his brilliant takeaway thrusts, like a fencer’s advance-lunge, he seized the puck and, in the same whirling, rapier motion, moved it usefully towards his mates in front of the net.

Simultaneously, he hammered Sanguinetti into the end boards with such force, the defenseman lost his feet and fell flat on his back.

Far less than sanguine, Bobby remained there, watching Datsyuk skate away, trying to get the license plate number on that truck.

On his first shift, the Russian captain made clear that if this “OAR” squad willingly risked enigmatic play, he would have none of it.

If necessary, he would put them on his back.

The effectiveness of that 12-step program took an early battering.

With Datsyuk setting the pace early and jitter-bugging in possession of the puck, a TV camera focused tightly on him, sitting on the bench, gasping for the oxygen to sustain the next shift.

“This guy, you look at him and he seems like just a wisp of a man,” said the NBC analyst Mike Milbury, a former Bruins defenseman who knows a bit about body-checking. “But lots of power in that wiry frame.”

Power, yes. But this wizard also has potions.

Ken Daniels’ invention “Datsyukian,” though unuttered on NBCSN, seemed to ring in the ears, nonetheless.

The American rights holder for the games broadcast four separate medleys of replays of the former Red Wings’ forward in action against the United States.

Each time, the isolated focus mesmerized.

No one else out there was doing that. Whoever has?

Datsyuk’s profound puck possession skills prevailed: His familiar stop-and-go, and the Whirling Dervish. His, first, I am going this way and, oh, watch out! Now I am over here. See?

He took off his top hat, set down his tipped walking stick, removed his black cape, unpacked the trickery from his locker chest and arrayed it before the world.

It all looked so fresh, and it confounded Team USA.

“Detroit will always be a part of me,” he said, on a bus ride after a game in Moscow, last week.

He left for his daughter, he said.

Yearning for home

Homesick? Perhaps sort of permanently so, in the United States, it sometimes seemed.

He talked of his regret at not having mastered enough English to know his team mates better. It seemed to speak volumes.

His great friend Henrik Zetterberg knew of his occasional linemate and perpetual sidekick’s unhappiness for some time, before Datsyuk decamped.

Red Wings management knew about it, for at least two seasons.

The unhappiness also came from the current style of play in the NHL, the enormously detailed approach to specific offensive plays and approaches in a dump-and-chase, go-to-the-net, shoot-for-the-sake-of-shots dungeon for skill and creativity.

“They no longer have to say shoot more,” he said of some critics in Detroit.

Russians players, generally, and Datsyuk never worry about shooting more. They worry about shooting better.

It is as if, these days, NHL management and coaches want players sitting in formal wear at music stands bearing classical compositions to be played by rote, in rigid detail.

Datsyuk is a jazzman. His motif is improvisation.

They wanted design.

He leaned toward the extemporaneous. Not out of stubborn ego, but more like the leader of a quintet in the great American artform, in pursuit of eclectic beauty for a supreme purpose.

In Datsyuk’s case, that is better hockey.

Despite his later compliments of Mike Babcock, one can imagine the talented coach and player in a stare down.

According to a Google translation of an interview with Sport-Express, the largest circulation sports newspaper in Russia, Datsyuk said, “Scotty Bowman, on the other hand, allowed me to play my game and improvise. Even though I was so young.”

He plainly loves his daughter from his first marriage. Their separation, he said, remained the concern he felt he must resolve.

But in the NHL, Datsyuk performed as a caged bird.

On Saturday, in the games of Pyeongchang, he sang.

Once, we were all so young.