April 16, 2009
Pavel Datsyuk reveals a deeper, thoughtful, funny side using native tongue
BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Hockey players are rarely loud. But even by the NHL's humble/mumble standards, Pavel Datsyuk has, for years, been silent.
Like most Red Wings watchers, I noticed the guy the minute he showed up. You couldn't help it. From his first season -- 2001-02 -- his quickness, the way he handled a puck, the way he flew between defenders as if they had their ankles chained together. How could you miss it? His passing was almost too good. His shots were like a cymbal crash. His defense improved to pickpocket status.
The All-Star selections? The Selke Trophy? Leading the NHL in takeaways? In all these facts, I knew Pavel Datsyuk. And in every other way, I didn't.
"No clue" is what I'd say when people asked me what he was like. Who had a clue? The most you ever got out of Datsyuk in a locker room were a few mumbles, a few clichés in a heavy accent and a smirk. After a while, many reporters didn't bother with him -- even though he often was the Wings' best player -- because how often can you hear: "We play good, I play good"?
But I had this theory. Every man is deeper than his sound bite. If Datsyuk ever sat down, relaxed, away from the rink, and spoke in Russian, I figured, he'd be a whole different story.
This week, I finally got to witness that, with the help of a Russian-speaking business associate of Datsyuk's named Dan Milstein. The three of us met at Bacco Ristorante in Southfield. Milstein translated. Sitting at a table, sipping a glass of water, Datsyuk shifted easily between his native tongue and his improved English.
And after a few hours, I knew more about this guy than I'd learned in eight years.
For one thing, he's funny. In either language. And he's got a philosophical side, often quoting old Russian expressions. Also -- and this struck me -- he was an orphan in his 20s; neither his father nor mother ever got to see him play in the United States, a fact that almost brings him to tears.
He is an anomaly in many ways, a fast player who likes to move slowly in real life, a 30-year-old man with a haircut from "Leave It To Beaver," an NHL star who in some ways is still reaching his potential.
After a 3-hour interview, he asks, "Please don't make me look like an ugly duckling who gets to be a swan." But then he quickly adds, "No, whatever you think, write it."
He is humble yet sarcastic, proud but shy. I liked him quite a bit after getting to know him.
Here is some of what he told me.
His first strides on the ice
For the first 10 years of his life, Pavel Datsyuk shared a bedroom with his older sister, in a three-room apartment in the large, industrial city of Sverdlovsk. They lived on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. "It's how I got strong," he jokes. "Walking up the steps." What he seems to remember most about the place is a window, which looked down onto a makeshift ice oval between the buildings. That oval is where Datsyuk learned hockey -- although before he learned it, he yearned it.
"One time I was so sick, but I saw the other kids playing, and I told my mother, 'I want to play. I want to go out.' My throat was sore. My head hurt. But she said, 'If you can eat this food, I'll let you go out.' I ate it, even sick, because I wanted to play so badly. And I ran out there and I was happy."
Datsyuk was a scrawny kid. When his father first brought him to the local sports club, there was hockey and there was chess and Pavel, for a year or so, played chess. When he focused on the ice, there were no early agents or scouts, no joining the national team, no flying overseas to live with an American family.
Instead, Pavel played locally and didn't think a lot about professional hockey. He didn't think about much besides being a kid and having fun. His father, Valery, drove a van for a nearby company and his mother, Galina, worked as a cook for a military outlet. She would take him there sometimes and they'd come home with arms full of fruits, meats, desserts.
One time, when Pavel was in his early teens, his mother took him on a vacation. They went to a town near the sea. They swam. They enjoyed the sun. "Just me and her," he says. "It was a really good time."
When they got home, her health deteriorated rapidly. Pavel was only a teenager. He didn't understand why she was sleeping nights on the couch, why she was so tired all the time, why his sister began injecting her with pain medication.
Then one snow-filled morning, his sister woke him up and said their mother had died in her sleep. She was 46.
"I felt guilty," says Datsyuk, who was 16 at the time. "She had cancer. I didn't know she was so sick. I thought she would get better.
"When I look back, I think she took that last vacation with me because she knew she was going to die. She hugged me a lot. She loved me so much. But I don't think I understood how much at the time. I was too young."
Finding the love of his life
Her death had a profound effect on Datsyuk. "The day of the funeral, when I came home, the apartment -- it didn't have any color. It felt cold. I can still see that image now."
He chokes up even talking about it. He swallows and his cheeks redden. But back then, instead of expressing his grief, he drifted into a lonely fog. It went on for months. "I lost myself," he admits.
He skipped practices. He wanted to quit hockey altogether. Had he not been so afraid of how his father would react, we might never know of Pavel Datsyuk today.
Instead, because he didn't want to face the man's wrath, Datsyuk kept playing. He improved, but his body was still small for his age group -- he was maybe 150 pounds -- and although he was eligible, he went unselected in the 1996 and 1997 NHL drafts.
One night, when he was 18, he and a friend were at a café and they met a couple of girls. Datsyuk had just been given a car from the hockey club -- the first car he'd ever owned -- and he asked one girl if she wanted a ride. Her friend said yes. The girl said no. They haggled back and forth. Finally, she relented, he drove her home, and when they said good-bye, she gave him her phone number. Her name was Svetlana.
"I knew she was special, but I couldn't tell anybody," he says. "I couldn't express it to anyone how I felt."
Instead, a few days later, he tried to call her. The voice that answered sounded like her, but when he said who was calling, the voice said Svetlana wasn't home.
"I couldn't believe it," Datsyuk recalls. "She was pretending not to be her." An hour later, he called again. And again, the voice said, "She's still not home."
Datsyuk was incensed. He told a friend, "Can you believe this? Why did she even give me her number?"
He tried one more time, same result. Then, after a few minutes, his phone rang. It was Svetlana. She really had been out. The voice on the phone had been her mother.
"Even today," Datsyuk admits, smiling, "it's hard to tell them apart."
He and Svetlana were married three years later -- just before he came to America. It would prove, he says, a smart move. Finding a partner before fame and fortune can be the best path for a professional athlete.
"We really knew each other. We grew up together," Datsyuk says. And although he initially did not tell her he was a hockey player -- "When she asked where I was going, I said I had to leave town for a few days for work" -- in time, she accepted his occupation and even encouraged him to stay with it when a severe knee injury made him wonder if he could come back. He needed rehab and therapy.
"What would you have done if you couldn't have played hockey anymore?" I ask.
He grins and recites something in Russian. "You can plan, but God decides," comes the translation.
Pavel Datsyuk, philosopher.
The long road to Motown
Did you know Datsyuk was baptized was he was 21? The knee injury had something to do with it. So did the manager of his hockey team at the time, who kept asking him what he believed in and why he didn't believe in more.
"I was not thinking like a man," Pavel says now, "I was thinking like a boy."
Not long after that, he headed to America as an unheralded sixth-round draft pick. It was not like signing Sidney Crosby. Detroit wasn't sure what it had in Datsyuk. And Datsyuk was less sure than the Wings. As the 171st player taken, he hadn't even believed the news when a friend told him. He'd never met anyone from Detroit.
"It's in the newspaper," his friend said.
"Show me," Pavel said.
Then the Wings' European scouting ace, Hakan Andersson, came to visit. He explained that he actually had been scouting another player when he noticed Datsyuk's skills, small as he was, and became intrigued. He was on a plane to see him again when it got cancelled -- and a scout from St. Louis was on the same plane. That was lucky, Andersson said, because as a result, he was the only NHL scout to see Datsyuk before the draft, which is how the Wings came to steal him so low.
All of this meant little to Datsyuk, who never thought he was going to make the NHL anyhow. He nodded at Andersson, who needed a translator to speak Russian.
"He asked me do I need anything. I wanted to say, 'Yes. I need money.' "
Instead, Datsyuk says, Andersson sent him a pair of skates.
Adjusting to the NHL
Can you imagine arriving in America, with a new wife, a new career, no English -- and a few days later, living through Sept. 11? That's what happened to Datsyuk. He came for Wings training camp in the fall of 2001, and all of a sudden, he saw people huddled around TV sets in their Traverse City hotel. He saw strangers crying.
"I didn't understand what was going on. I didn't even know how to ask anyone."
Since that baptism of fire, he admits, American life has gotten easier. Having Russian teammates was a huge help. And the language barrier has been useful over the years in dealing with the media. "Most of the time," he says, "nobody comes up to me, and I can do what I need to do."
But there is part of Datsyuk that yearns to be better understood now. Life has forced him to mature. His father died a few years ago of a heart attack while sitting behind the wheel in a parking lot in Russia.
"I only found out after he died how proud he was of me. If I scored or something, he would talk to his friends about it. When I was playing in Russia" during the lockout year "he would call his friends and talk about how this happened or that happened. I never knew this. I found out from those men after he died."
Why didn't you talk more when he was alive?
"I don't know. He never came to watch me play in America."
Did he ever ask for a ticket?
"He never asked."
Do you wish he had gotten to see you before he died?
He swallows, and his face reddens again.
"Him -- and my mom."
So even if he tries to hide it, there is more to Datsyuk than the boyish haircut and the angular face that smirks and smiles. He is a father himself -- of a 6-year-old daughter. He is a rich man -- in the midst of a $47-million contract -- yet he's wise enough to quote an old Russian expression, "A happy person is the one who doesn't need anything." He is lightning quick on the ice, yet off the ice he often parks in the farthest spot, saying he misses the days in Russia when he used to have to walk everywhere.
And when I ask him the greatest moment of his hockey career, he says, "When I got injured in Russia." When pressed to explain, he says, "Because that is when I learned to appreciate how much I love the game."
His opponents would prefer he love it a little less. He is about to attack them in force starting tonight, as the Wings begin their defense of the Stanley Cup facing Columbus -- a team against which Datsyuk has notched 50 points in 37 career games.
What do you want people to know about you that they don't, I ask him?
"I am 5-foot-11 and weigh 190," he says, laughing. "No, I don't really like compliments. I don't think I am as good as I can be. I don't want to make a commercial about myself. Please."
No commercial. No ugly duckling story. Just a curtain lifted on a guy who has been a sports fixture for eight years in this town, and deserves a moment to explain himself -- in his own words. You see an amazing performer when you watch Pavel Datsyuk buzz around the ice. But from this point on, I, for one, will see a lot more. And I only wish I had found a translator a few years earlier.
Meet Pavs or Dats
Who: Pavel Valerievich Datsyuk, a Red Wings center.
Size: 5-feet-11, 190 pounds.
Born: July 20, 1978, Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), Russia.
Drafted: Sixth round (171st overall) by Wings in 1998.
Debut: Oct. 4, 2001, at San Jose.
On the ice: Selke Trophy for best defensive forward (2008). Lady Byng for gentlemanly play (2006-08). Twice won Stanley Cup (2002, '08). Signed seven-year contract, longest in club history at the time, in April 2007. Led Wings in scoring four straight years (2006-09) -- a feat accomplished only by Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman.
On the Web: www.datsyuk13.com.