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Datsyuk leaves as 'incredible Red Wing'

Detroit forward to return home to Russia after 14 seasons in NHL

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ORCHARD LAKE, Mich. -- When great players retire from the Detroit Red Wings, they usually receive the honor of a press conference in the Olympia Club at Joe Louis Arena. They wear a suit. They sit upon a podium with a "HOCKEYTOWN" backdrop. Surrounded by ownership and management, family and friends, they reminisce in a warm, emotional scene.

But Pavel Datsyuk, a four-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, the Magic Man, announced his departure between sessions of his youth hockey camp at a suburban Detroit prep school Saturday. He wore a warmup suit. He stood between a maroon curtain and a wooden lectern with no logos. His only audience was a small group of reporters, a few TV cameras and rows of empty seats.

"This was not an easy decision," Datsyuk said in a conference room upstairs from the ice rink at St. Mary's Preparatory, about 45 minutes north of Joe Louis Arena, "but it's time for us to return home."

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland later stood in the dressing room at Joe Louis Arena and said there were no hard feelings. It was just scheduling because of Gordie Howe's visitation Tuesday and funeral Wednesday, plus the Red Wings' organizational meetings and Datsyuk's camp late this week.

"I have no ill will whatsoever," Holland said. "He was an incredible Red Wing."

Video: Jon Morosi Retrospective on Pavel Datsyuk

But it was a sour, surreal ending to an otherwise outstanding career.

Datsyuk, who turns 38 on July 20, signed a three-year contract but will end up honoring only two-thirds of it, leaving the Red Wings to deal with his $7.5 million cap charge for the 2016-17 NHL season. He will do so not because his body is worn out or he has lost the desire to play, but so he can play in the Kontinental Hockey League. He will sit down with his agent Dan Milstein on Tuesday and go over the KHL offers he has received.

We can't judge the damage until everything plays out. It depends on whether the Red Wings can trade the contract to another team willing to absorb the cap charge, what assets they have to give up to do it and what they do with cap space to bolster their roster via trade and free agency. Best case, they clear the cap space and acquire Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, a pending unrestricted free agent.

But it doesn't look promising. Few teams are able to absorb the cap charge, let alone willing, and the price could be more than the Red Wings are willing to pay. They don't want give up top young players or high draft picks to save $7.5 million in cap space for one season, not when they are trying to rebuild on the fly. Whether Datsyuk left now or later, they faced the same challenge: replacing their core. Datsyuk, captain Henrik Zetterberg and defenseman Niklas Kronwall aren't what they used to be.

"We'll see if I can move the contract," Holland said. "I'm not overly optimistic. … Certainly you're going to be compromised by having $7.5 million tied up in a player that you don't have. It's a huge loss, it's a huge hole and it's a very, very difficult situation."

Video: Datsyuk's Decision to Return to Russia

Everyone shares in the blame. Holland knew the rules and the risks of signing a player to a three-year contract when he was 35 or older. Neither he nor the agent who negotiated the contract for Datsyuk, Gary Greenstin, made sure Datsyuk understood the rules. Before he signed the contract, Datsyuk did not tell them he might not complete it, and after he signed it and the rules were explained to him, he still decided to walk away. In the end, Datsyuk is the one breaching the contract.

"It's my decision," Datsyuk said.

That said, everyone seems to have had the best intentions. Things don't always go as planned. Life happens.

Why didn't Holland sign Datsyuk to one-year deals as he had done with players like Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom toward the end of their careers? After the 2013-14 season, Greenstin approached Holland about a five-year deal for Datsyuk. Greenstin told Holland that Datsyuk wanted to retire as a Red Wing.

"What do you think would have happened if I had countered with a one-year deal?" Holland said. "He would have been on another team."

Holland said he was uncomfortable with five years. He and Greenstin went back and forth. Datsyuk ended up asking Holland directly what term he thought would be fair.

"I said, 'Let's do a three-year deal. If you want to play here until you're 41 or 42, we can keep doing one-year deals,'" Holland said. "Fortunately we didn't sign a five-year deal. We'd have a bigger problem on our hands."

Datsyuk said he intended to honor the entire contract at the time. But he had a daughter from his first marriage living in Russia whom he rarely got to see, and a week into his new contract, he told Holland that 2014-15 would be his last season in the NHL.

A month or two later, Datsyuk told Zetterberg. That December or January, Holland started to talk to Greenstin in an effort to convince Datsyuk to stay, explaining the effect his departure would have on the team, and then Datsyuk replaced Greenstin with Milstein. Datsyuk and Milstein started trying to find ways to get out of the contract without hurting the Red Wings.

After the 2014-15 season, Holland convinced Datsyuk to honor his contract for 2015-16, telling him if he came back but wanted to leave for 2016-17, the Red Wings would deal with the fallout. He hoped Datsyuk would come back, have fun and decide to honor his contract for 2016-17 too. But Datsyuk said the longer it went, the harder it was for him to be away from home. His daughter turns 14 in August.

"Pav was concerned about the Detroit Red Wings," Holland said. "Pav didn't do this knowingly. Certainly I'm disappointed he's not going to honor the '16-17 season, but I've spent 18 months talking to him and Dan Milstein, and I understand the reasons why. His heart isn't here anymore."

A piece of it always will remain, though. Remember: Datsyuk came to Detroit as the 171st selection in the 1998 NHL Draft. He didn't know the language. He didn't know the culture. He didn't know the North American game.

"They give me a chance to change me," Datsyuk said.

Datsyuk said Detroit became his "second home," and he became one of the best two-way players in hockey, not to mention one of the most entertaining. He had 314 goals and 918 points in 953 NHL regular-season games, plus 42 goals and 113 points in 157 playoff games, all with the Red Wings. He had a rare combination of hustle and creativity, picking pockets on the backcheck, making now-you-see-it-now-you-don't moves in the offensive end. Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz once said he had "joy" in his game, and he was a joy to watch.

Now the joy is gone. For his final act, the Magic Man has vanished, just like that.

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