TORONTO — Pavel Datsyuk‘s North American magic show had one final act.
Months after deciding to leave the NHL and go home to Russia, the Detroit Red Wings great showed off his fanciful skillset one last time on this side of the ocean at the World Cup of Hockey. A lower-body injury may have cut his tournament short but not before another remarkable performance against players 15 to 20 years younger.
Datsyuk’s legs aren’t what they used to be at age 38, but he was a difference maker killing penalties and keeping up with the pace of a lightning-fast end-to-end victory against Team North America that helped Russia advance. He missed Russia’s round-robin finale Thursday against Finland and was scratched again from the lineup Saturday night against Canada.
Datsyuk left a lasting memory on the NHL, especially to his peers who appreciate his play the most from watching him up close.
“Oh, he’s unbelievable,” said Russian star Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You do not see much what he (can) do because he’s so professional. He’s (the) most professional I’ve ever seen.”
Datsyuk had 314 goals and 604 assists in 953 games for the Red Wings over 14 seasons. But his play with the puck is more memorable than the points he scored with it, so much so that Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, used to recognize Datsyuk as “the magic man.”
Mike Babcock, who coached Datsyuk in Detroit before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the Russian was a pleasure to be around and someone he learned a lot from. Babcock, who’s coaching Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews with Canada for a third time, knows Datsyuk wasn’t as prodigious as those stars who were elite as teenagers but said he made a major impact when he entered the NHL at age 21.
“His span, I don’t know how many years it was, in my opinion he was the best forward in hockey in that time,” Babcock said Thursday. “Lots of people would say somebody else scored more points. He was the best player in hockey up front for a period of time with and without the puck.”
Datsyuk made it look as if he had the puck on a string and was among the best at knocking it away from opponents. Four times he won the Lady Byng Trophy awarded to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of ability.
That standard hasn’t faded. Russia coach Oleg Znarok said in Datsyuk’s case, “age doesn’t matter.”
“He is responsible for a lot of roles on our team like penalty kill,” he said through an interpreter. “Definitely one of the best players.”
Datsyuk signed with SKA St. Petersburg to finish his playing career in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He has great respect from the game’s top players, and those who played with him understand that the most.
“Talking with guys on (the U.S.) team and guys that I’ve come across, (they know) just how good he is with the puck and his takeaways,” former Red Wings teammate Justin Abdelkader said. “He practices every day. A lot of people don’t see, but he’s always playing after games, small-area games or 1-on-1 with players. It just shows his commitment and how good he is.”
As exciting as watching Datsyuk in games has been for fans for over a decade, Abdelkader isn’t the only player in awe of his practice habits. Russian teammate Vladislav Namestnikov called Datsyuk “unreal” and figures he’ll get better just from soaking in how his elder prepares for games in the gym and after practice.
Injuries have hampered Datsyuk and he was traded at the draft — to the Arizona Coyotes to give Detroit cap relief. He’s on the Coyotes’ roster this season despite playing in the KHL, where he already has seven points in six games.
Datsyuk leaving with one year left on his contract may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but Babcock points out it happened for the right reason.
“Age catches up to all of us,” Babcock said. “But he’s still an effective player and he’s chosen to go home to be around his family and that’s good for Pavel.”