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Overcoming the odds nothing new for Datsyuk

by Larry Wigge
PITTSBURGH -- When you see Pavel Datsyuk walk through the hallways at an NHL rink, it's almost painful to watch. He's got that old aches-and-pains, bowlegged gait. But put a soccer ball or hockey puck in front of him and he's like Secretariat. Just try to slow him down.

Datsyuk brings a swagger to the Wings, and his two assists that helped power Detroit to a 5-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night was just the latest example. And that performance came after he hadn't played in 17 days.

"I feel like 18-years-young again," the 30-year-old Datsyuk said the other day when it looked like he was going to play in his first playoff game since Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against Chicago. "I feel more comfortable."

The shifty center was asked if he'd be willing to move to the wing to help get him back in the lineup sooner, to which he quickly replied, "I play at wing, center or defense. I want to play so bad."

In a series in which both the Red Wings and Penguins like to think their puck possession game is best, Datsyuk is a puckhandling difference-maker.

"When he has the puck, he makes the other team play defense because he's good at hanging onto it," marveled captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "He backs up their defensemen and makes their whole line play defense."

Added oft-time linemate Henrik Zetterberg: "He's really good on the 50-50 pucks. That's why his takeaway numbers are always among the best in the NHL."

Datsyuk always was a skinny kid. That's part of the reason why he wasn't picked at all in his draft year and it wasn't until the second year that the Wings finally took a chance on his brilliant skills, reasoning he could get stronger and might someday be ready to play in the NHL.

"It's funny," he told me earlier this season. "My first sport wasn't soccer or hockey. It was chess."

Valery, Pavel's dad, drove a van for a company near their home in Sverdlovsk, Russia. He's the one who introduced his son to chess. Pavel's mom, Galina, worked as a cook for a military base. She's the one who would take him to the skating rink.

This scrawny kid built up his legs and lower body by climbing the four floors of stairs to their apartment. No elevator for Pav. That's one of the reasons why he is so difficult to knock off the puck.

"That's how I started to get stronger," he laughed. "Walking up and down those steps. Three, four times a day sometimes."

Datsyuk's trademark big smile crossed his face when he remembered the old days. He told me he wanted to quit hockey altogether when his mother died of cancer at 46. But his father and friends talked him into sticking with the game.

"Friends tell me, 'Pav, hockey could be good life for you,' " Datsyuk said, adding that he thinks of his mom every time he plays. She's his inspiration. She brought color to his life.

It wasn't long after that his father died of a heart attack -- and Pavel threw everything into hockey.

Still, he was only 150 pounds when he turned 18. Wings European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson got a tip and went to see him. Andersson loved Datsyuk's skill, not his size. To this day, he remembers how lucky Detroit was, because, on a day a short time later when Hakan was on a flight to go back to see him play, a St. Louis Blues scout was also on the plane.

Luckily for the Wings, the flight was canceled and the Wings were able to get Datsyuk in the sixth round, with the 171st pick in the 1998 Entry Draft -- one of the greatest steals in draft history.

Now, Datsyuk is a muscular 5-foot-11, 195 pounds. He uses that strong lower body to protect the puck and quickly maneuver into positions to make plays offensively and defensively.

Laughing. Smiling. Shouting. Datsyuk has come a long way from that fresh-faced 23-year-old kid who was new to the ways of North America back in September of 2001, when he started his career as a Red Wing. He knew hockey and he knew soccer, but …

"When he has the puck, he makes the other team play defense because he's good at hanging onto it. He backs up their defensemen and makes their whole line play defense."
-- Nicklas Lidstrom

"When I came to North America, it was hard," Datsyuk told me recently. "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. And now, he's one win away from back-to-back Cups.

"I think Pavel's the most exciting one-on-one player in the game," Wings General Manager 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," raved Zetterberg.

"Good hands and moves?" Datsyuk said, repeating the question. "I wasn't strong when I was young. The puck was maybe too heavy."

This delightfully shifty forward didn't look like he was having any trouble with the puck in Game 5, did he? Not that same skinny kid that had trouble getting NHL scouts to look at him once upon a time.

Mom and Dad would be proud of what Pavel Datsyuk has done with his life.

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