When Pavel Datsyuk arrived in 2001 to start what would become an illustrious career with the Red Wings, he couldn't have asked for a better situation.
He was joining a powerhouse squad led by Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman and featuring some of the greatest players in NHL history, including Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Dominik Hasek and Luc Robitaille.
Almost 12 years later, all of those legendary names have ended their playing career and are on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Two more Red Wings legends, Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, retired last summer, leaving Datsyuk as one of the few remaining veterans on a team suddenly forced to rely on its young prospects.
The Red Wings came of age through a Stanley Cup playoff run that fell one win short of the Western Conference Final. That maturation likely will continue next season, when the Red Wings play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
"I like it for the Red Wings and Toronto. Original Six, will be a good game between a Canadian team and American team," Datsyuk told NHL.com Friday. "Also for Michigan, the people need it now. The economy is low. Kids will see, and parents can explain how they played outside. I think it's unbelievable."
The big game at the Big House will be a special event for everyone involved, but particularly for young Red Wings Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist and Danny DeKeyser, who experienced a trial-by-fire this season. Datsyuk, having participated in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in Chicago, will play a large role mentoring those players into the fabric of the team.
"We have a younger team now. But we're still a good team," Datsyuk said. "When I came 11 years ago, there were a lot of veteran guys. Now the team is younger, younger, younger. But I'm older, older, older."
Datsyuk said Larionov was instrumental in his development in Detroit.
"He was a person who helped a lot in the beginning," Datsyuk said. "Not just from listening to him but watching. I'm a lucky guy because I not [only] just watched him play games. We enjoyed every day at practice. I learned from the best."
Despite guidance from one of his childhood idols, Datsyuk's debut in Detroit wasn't seamless. An unheralded sixth-round pick from the industrial city of Yekaterinburg in central Russia, Datsyuk had recently represented his country for the first time at the World Championship when he arrived in Traverse City for his first Red Wings training camp.
With few words of English and little experience living outside his home country, Datsyuk's first camp went from surreal to scary fairly quickly: the tragic events of Sept. 11 took place. It was a chilling moment for the 23-year-old.
"What really shocked me when I came to Traverse City was 9/11. I didn't speak English and I saw the TV and I couldn't understand what was going on," Datsyuk, 35 in July, said. "When we came to Detroit from Traverse City, they put me in the Marriott Hotel on the 40-something floor. I had never been high like that. On the bottom, the metro [Detroit's People Mover] went by. I thought I was in the future. I couldn't believe it."
But Datsyuk quickly adapted to his new home, a place where he would twice win the Stanley Cup and raise his family. Already established among the Red Wings' all-time greats, Datsyuk's presence at the 2014 Winter Classic will add a new chapter to the team's history.