DETROIT – It was a really rough week for the Red Wings organization.
First, the hockey world said a teary goodbye to Gordie Howe during an elegant funeral mass fit for the iconic Mr. Hockey.
Then, three days later, the Red Wings parted with another star of his generation – Pavel Datsyuk.
The Russian superstar announced Saturday what everybody already suspected. The two-time Stanley Cup winner, who delighted fans while bewildering opponents with magic-like artistry, would not return for the 2016-17 season.
Datsyuk has decided to forgo the final season of a three-year contract to return home to Russia to be closer to his teenage daughter. For months the three-time Selke Trophy winner hinted publically that his early NHL retirement was possible.
The premier two-way forward of his era, Datsyuk, who also was a four-time Lady Byng Trophy winner, compiled 314 goals and 918 points in 953 regular-season game. His points and goal totals rank sixth and seventh, respectively, among all-time Red Wings. His assists (604) and game-winning goals (51) rank fifth, and his power-play goals (97) is sixth in franchise history.
His postseason numbers were also top-10 worthy, fifth in assists (71), sixth in points (113), seventh in power-play goals (15), and eighth in goals (42).
Though I’ve been embedded with the Red Wings as a beat writer for 10 seasons I never got to know Datsyuk outside of his impressive statistics and highlight-reel scoring touch. Sure, there’s the language barrier but Datsyuk has never been completely comfortable around the media – including yours truly.
Some Red Wings players – and understandably so – were, at first, skeptical of my presence when I began traveling with the club full time. But Datsyuk’s leeriness was that of a KGB operative, more heightened than his teammates.
Once on Red Bird III, Datsyuk leaned over the aisle from me, and in his heavy Russian accent asked, “Why you here?”
When I told him that I was asked to cover 50 percent more of the team’s games, he shot back with, “You can’t do from home?”
After saying his good-byes to Mr. Hockey on Wednesday, Datsyuk, in his own unique cryptic way, said adios to me.
Though I didn’t immediately get his meaning, it dawned on me that his farewell was tied to a nearly 10-year-old incident. See, the first time I accompanied the team on the road I committed a cardinal sin – unknowingly occupying the star’s seat on the bus.
I’ve always tried to maintain a fly-on-the-wall existence around the team but when Datsyuk stepped onto the bus that afternoon in Anaheim and looked my way, I suspected that the next minute wasn’t going to go well.
As Datsyuk made his way up the aisle, touching the top of each seat as he walked by, he counted out load, “One. Two. Three.”
As he reached the next season, he looked at me and said, “Four. You’re sitting in my seat.”
“I’m sorry, Pasha,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry,” Datsyuk replied. “Get out.”
Apparently, Datsyuk remembers that story too, because Wednesday, he made a kind gesture.
As I reached out to shake his hand, Datsyuk said, “You can have my seat.”
Thank you, Pavel, but I could have waited a year before you bequeathed your seat.