By Drew Sharp/Detroit Free Press
No surprises. No change of heart.
If anything, Pavel Datsyuk followed his heart.
He’s Russian. He was ready to return home. For 14 often magnificent seasons, Datsyuk’s nationality was that of a Red Wing – hockey’s version of the United Nations. They brought together the finest talent from two continents and several more countries. The normally reserved, soft-spoken Datsyuk eventually grew comfortable in this cosmopolitan environment.
But it was finally time.
As he admitted Saturday, as much as he loved his Detroit experience, this was his “second home.”
Datsyuk formally announced his retirement from the NHL on Saturday. He’ll play in the KHL – the Russian elite league – next season. During his press conference, he thanked the Ilitch family, the Wings, his teammates and the passionate Detroit hockey fans for “a great experience.”
But, in the end, Datsyuk wasn’t a hockey player. He was a dad. It’s fitting this announcement came on the eve of Father’s Day. Datsyuk has a teenaged daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in Detroit but now lives in Russia with her mother. He wants to be with her more while he can. How many fathers out there say to themselves: “Where did the time go?” Their kids were newborns and then with a snap of a finger they’re older and transitioning into the next chapter of their emotional development.
“When I come back from the (2012 owners’ lockout),” Datsyuk said, “My mind is thinking that I want to go home. But I also want to keep playing here. I go with my mind and go with another three years. But it got harder and harder.”
The trail of bread crumbs was there back in February, according to Datsyuk’s agent Dan Millstein, that Datsyuk was strongly leaning toward leaving the Wings. He refused the $2 million signing bonus that was contingent upon him playing the final year of the three-year contract he signed in 2014.
“Everyone knew that this was a possibility,” Millstein said Saturday. “It was a difficult decision for Pavel because there’s no doubt how much he loved being a Detroit Red Wing. But he thought he had a stronger commitment to his family.”
There might be some hurt feelings among those left behind. Datsyuk isn’t Calvin Johnson, who had multiple years remaining on his contract when he understandably bolted from the Detroit Lions in March. Datsyuk had one year left – worth $7.5 million, including the $2 million dollar bonus. Why couldn’t he have stayed for one more year to spare the Wings a stay in salary cap hell?
But remember how often everyone complains about star athletes that are negligent fathers in their private lives?
Datsyuk deserves credit for putting his family first. He could make far more money in the NHL than the KHL, but that didn’t matter. He always desired writing the final chapters of his professional hockey career before his native Russian fans. And while Millstein wouldn’t admit it, there were certainly concerns Datsyuk’s offseason ankle surgery last summer crystallised the reality that his skill level had diminished.
And perhaps that accelerated the idea he should return to Russian hockey to give his native fans a glimpse of the majesty he displayed as a Red Wing, earning him the moniker of The Magic Man.
Datsyuk’s departure leaves the Wings in salary cap hell. Unless Wings general manager Ken Holland finds a team that’s under the salary cap floor willing to take the final $7.5 million of Datsyuk’s contract off the Wings’ ledger, they’ll be severely handicapped in making the moves necessary to move the Wings forward this season.
There are some dark times ahead for the Wings. But that’s not what this day was all about.
Give thanks to the Magic Man. And now let him disappear.
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