There was a pretty intense one-on-one soccer game going on in the hallway outside the Detroit Red Wings
' dressing room in Dallas the other day between centers Kris Draper
and Pavel Datsyuk
"You were over the line," shouted Datsyuk, pointing to an invisible marker that was supposed to be the net in this combination soccer-volleyball game in which the object was not to let the ball hit the ground ... with walls and ceiling being part of the playing field.
"You're dreaming," laughed Draper.
"You're crazy," Datsyuk returned.
Laughing. Smiling. Shouting. Pavel Datsyuk
has come a long way from that fresh-faced 23-year-old kid who was new to the ways of North America in September 2001, when he started his career as a Red Wing. He knew hockey and he knew soccer, but ...
"When I came to North America, it was hard," the native of Sverdlovsk, Russia said. "It was hard to understand, hard to get someone to understand me. I only knew Russian. I studied French in school, but (he said laughing) it didn't help. I forgot most of that."
Datsyuk was a rookie in this new world as he took a wonderful and yet sometimes puzzling ride to a Stanley Cup in the spring of 2002.
He played in all five games of that year's Final against the Carolina Hurricanes
, with no points. But watching him raise the Cup and kiss it after the victory just like the rest of the Detroit players who had grown up dreaming of someday playing in the NHL and lifting Lord Stanley's silver chalice in celebration was memorable.
"I didn't see a lot of NHL in Russia, but the couple of games I did see I liked and it made me want to try to be there," he remembered. "Coming to Detroit was great for me. Russian Five. Stanley Cups in 1997 and '98. I watched and ..."
Again a big laugh before he finished his thought, saying, "It's kind of funny. I remember one guy in the locker room back (in June 1998 when Datsyuk was drafted in the sixth round, 171st overall) said, 'You've been drafted by the NHL. Detroit.' I said, 'Not funny. Don't kid about that.' Then he showed me the newspaper that had my name on the draft list. I said, 'Wow!!!' and dreamed that I might someday come to Detroit."
The biggest difference between today's playful, competitive and confident Pavel, who has led the Red Wings in scoring in each of the last three seasons, and the Datsyuk who wasn't sure what was going to happen next, is that then we only saw glimpses of what the Detroit scouts saw. Now he's perhaps the most dangerous player in the League.
"I think Pavel's the most exciting one-on-one player in the game," GM Ken Holland said.
Even when he's facing a one-on-two, he can be Houdini-like the way he is able to escape or elude trouble.
"The hands, the feet, the moves ... they're magical," said Dallas Stars
goaltender Marty Turco
, who shook his head, then added, "I played at the University of Michigan, so I know that sports are like a religion in Detroit, and I don't think those Detroit fans have seen magic like that since, well, uh, ... "
"Could you be thinking of Barry Sanders, maybe?" I offered.
"Perfect," replied Turco. "All of those moves."
The truth of the matter is that Datsyuk had help when he arrived in Detroit. Russian Five members Igor Larionov
and Sergei Fedorov
were still with the Wings. So was Sergei Tchekmarev, the team's masseur. Brett Hull
was also a key member of the I-want-to-help-Pavel club.
"He's a bright young man. Creative. Funny. He was the brains on our line. With all of his moves, he could take the attention away from me. All I had to do was get open and put my stick in position to shoot," Hull said. "Playing with a young, skilled player like that at that point of my career really made it exciting for me."
It's no coincidence that this deceptively quick and exciting player really took off in the last three seasons after he and the rest of the NHL lost a season due to the lockout. When the game returned, Datsyuk had no contract with the Wings ... or anyone.
"We had talked to Pavel's people, and we had a difference of opinion what he was worth in the NHL," Holland remembered. "You never know in a negotiation if they're bluffing. Then, one morning I woke up to see reports that he was going to play in Russia. In fact, I had heard he signed contracts to play with two different teams in Russia. It wasn't a good feeling. But ..."
Something was lost in the translation.
"I wanted to stay in Detroit, but I had already lost a season during the lockout. It was a hard summer. Training camp had already started in Russia and in NHL and I wanted to make sure my family was taken care of," he explained. "But my heart was in Detroit and with Red Wings fans."
Think about it. The face of the Red Wings is Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg
and Nicklas Lidstrom
. What if ...
"I'd rather not speculate," Holland added. "All I know is I don't know where we'd be without him. He certainly pulls me out of my seat when I watch him play."
"He's good on faceoffs, good on defense and great on offense. Who wouldn't want him on the ice?" offered coach Mike Babcock.
The hands, the feet, the moves are magical — especially for a player who was passed over twice in the NHL Entry Draft before finally being picked in the sixth round. Maybe that's why Datsyuk was so surprised when his teammates told him the Red Wings had picked him back in 1998.
"Good hands and moves?" Datsyuk said, repeating the question. "I wasn't strong when I was young. The puck was maybe too heavy."
"I guess I tried to move the puck from side to side to keep from getting hit," he added with a big smile.
Before last year's Playoffs, Red Wings made sure there would be no more confusion about his future in the NHL, signing him to a seven-year contract.
"I don't want free agency. I only wanted Detroit," Pavel said. "I wanted to start and finish with one team. This team. Detroit."
Playful. Competitive. Confident.
"What do I like to do away from hockey?" Pavel added. "Soccer. Tennis. Even go into training room. And golf.
"But I'm not so good in golf. Lots of lost balls."
Lost? Pavel Datsyuk
may have once worried about feeling lost in a new country, new culture and lost after a lost season during the lockout. But nothing is ever lost in the translation when describing the magical, mesmerizing skills he has.
Since 2002, he's seen others lift the Stanley Cup in celebration of victory — and he wants nothing better than to lift that Cup even higher and savor a championship even more than he did as a rookie.