Russian "Spider" in the Motor City

The center and best shooter for the Detroit Red Wings, Pavel Datsyuk, proves by his play in the current season that he is one of the most qualified and intelligent players in the world. For many hockey experts it was an unpleasant surprise that Datsyuk was not selected to play in the 2007 NHL All-Star Game.

Who would have thought that this guy, who could barely make it on the hockey team Dynamo-Energiya in Yekaterinburg in the mid-‘90s would, in 10 years, become a Detroit and NHL star? Or that the notorious American sharpshooter Brett Hull would say about Datsyuk: "This boy is the most talented of all hockey players I met on my path. When Datsyuk accustoms himself a little bit, he will be dominating the NHL as no one in our age did."

Datsyuk was born on July 20, 1978 in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). And in his 30 years of life he has passed through many trials. When he was 12 his mother died. And in 2006, when Datsyuk was returning to his native Yekaterinburg with a group of fans on a charter flight from the world championship in Europe, his father died.

Given all that has happened to Datsyuk, his life is reminiscent of the fairy tale where the ugly duckling is actually a beautiful swan. A player, underestimated in his youth, became a superstar. He was on the Red Wings in 2002 when the team won the Stanley Cup. And in 2005 he became the best hockey player from Russia and Russia’s champion on the Moscow Dynamo team.

Perhaps the estimation of his skills by two-time Olympic champion and Dynamo hockey legend Alexander Maltsev may be worth the most to Datsyuk: "For the first time in recent years Dynamo has a genuine leader: Datsyuk. He is not only an artful forward with filigree technique, but also a real fighter and the team’s engine," says the genius of the ice rink in one of his interviews about Datsyuk.

As often occurs in stories with happy endings, the beginning of Datsyuk’s hockey carrier did not go well. He started out playing in the farm-club Dynamo-Energiya of Yekaterinburg. He was an ordinary player, and didn’t stand out.

Vladimir Krikunov’s coming to the Ural team became a turning point. Krikunov is the current trainer of Dynamo of Moscow and the ex-trainer of the 2006 Russian Olympic team. He distinguished, during the farm club’s training, the potential of a master in this "boy with a twitchy walk." Krikunov took note of Datsyuk when the farm club’s hockey players were training, not at the ice rink, but by playing soccer. But the wise trainer discerned that this boy "read the game."

It is not accidental that Datsyuk has arrived namely thanks to Krikunov, who became a head of Dynamo in 2004, during the lockout that took place in the NHL. "He is strict, but he is a Real Man. Written with capital letters. This nickname has been given to him in all the teams where he worked," Datsyuk said about Krikunov in one of his interviews.

In the ‘90s, in the presence of Krikunov, Datsyuk started to play permanently as a part of the Dynamo-Energiya club of Yekaterinburg. He played in such a way that the scout for Detroit at the time, after watching Datsyuk play said that he had found "a second Larionov in Siberia." As a result, Datsyuk went to Scotty Bowman’s Red Wings. Bowman had created the notorious ‘Russian Five’ in the ‘90s. Datsyuk managed to meet with Larionov, with whom he polished his technique during training, and from whom he took valuable lessons. It was not an accident that Datsyuk began to be associated with the "great hockey professor," and to be called Larionov’s successor. And they certainly have one thing to be in common: the unique quality of their playmaking.

But before this a tragedy happened to Datsyuk. An injury involving ligaments in his leg raised questions not only about his further participation in the NHL, but about his becoming permanently crippled as well. "There was a feeling that the leg is not going to straighten itself up for months or even years," confessed Datsyuk much later.

And at the same time Krikunov started to train the Ak Bars from the city of Kazan. Krikunov was waiting for Datsyuk in his club. The Kazans paid for Datsyuk’s course of treatment in Israel, though he had not yet played with their team. Datsyuk was restored to full health, and brought back to hockey life. After he had played 42 matches of the 2000-2001 season with the Ak Bars and racked up 28 on the "goal-plus-pass" system, Datsyuk left for the United States and went back to Detroit.

Datsyuk must have been thankful for having met such great trainers, who were able to notice his outstanding talent. And if Krikunov managed to unearth a gem from Ural, Scotty Bowman—father and founder of the legendary Red Wings of the ‘90s—cut this diamond. "I am glad that Pavel has come to my team and that I participated in polishing his mastery," said a trainer.

After being chosen 171st in the sixth round of the NHL draft, in five years Datsyuk became the Red Wings’ best player and a participant at the All-Star Game. And before that he and his team won the Stanley Cup in 2002.

In 2003 Datsyuk appeared to be the only Russian on the Detroit team, whose power in the ‘90s had been defined by the "Russian Five." The last season before the lockout raised Datsyuk to the rank of one of the world’s best. He had an astounding 30 goals and 38 passes in 75 matches of the season. Brendan Shanahan of the Red Wings said about him: "I do not know any other player that could cope so well with a hockey stick." Fans will be talking about his goal in Tampa Bay for a long time, which has been shown repeatedly for two weeks by all North America’s sports channels. It was a goal that simply never could be repeated. Datsyuk kicked a puck with his back to the goal. And when he was asked to reveal how he had managed it, Datsyuk just laughed it off in his own style, saying, "There is nothing special. Feint, sprint, goal!"

No one knows what Datsyuk will do at any moment. The quickness that befuddles his opponents is one of the main qualities hockey experts believe distinguishes Datsyuk. But neither his skating, nor his prowess with a hockey stick, nor paranormal feints can explain his talent. The best quality of this genius is the suddenness of his power.

"He doesn’t care where he gives a pass—left or right, or behind his back. Everyone speaks of the Yagr’s greatness. But Yagr is an individual player; and Pavel is also an outstanding individual, but who plays a team game," says Dynamo vice president and three-time Olympic champion Vitaliy Davidov. In spite of his outstanding skill with the puck and shooting prowess, working with his team gives Datsyuk the most pleasure.

Datsyuk is famous namely because he is able not only to make effective passes when attacking, but also to be masterful when defending. Namely, Krikunov let him in the game in the decisive points in matches, when the Dynamo and Russian team were facing power plays, and sometimes three men versus five. It’s impossible to quantify all work Datsyuk did that allowed his partners to take a breath in the critical minutes of a match. In one of the games of a 2006 championship match, Datsyuk’s hockey stick was broken when his team was facing five-on-three. He not only fought, but actually pushed an opponent out of the zone.

Describing his artful play, journalists of one of the sports newspapers named Datsyuk "Spider-Man." This nickname stuck to him. Datsyuk has said that he is not a spider-man, but just a "little spider."

Datsyuk’s wit is legendary. "When you are to relax, a joke or an anecdote from Datsyuk is the best remedy," said Dynamo ex-president Anatoliy Harchuk. Datsyuk compares his sense of humor with comedies starring Jim Carrey.

However, there is nothing funny about his skill on the ice. He took command of the playoff matches of the Russian championship in 2005. In the second game, an outstanding, crucial final match with Lada, Dynamo won two to zero thanks in large part to goalkeeper Vitaliy Eremeev. After the match Datsyuk came up to the goalkeeper and said, with a smile, to the hero of the match: "Vitaliy, you stood bad. You may play better."

That is what he is: A charming wit, a gifted hockey player, and Ural’s "little spider."

By Maxim Makarytchev