Pavel Datsyuk didn't want it to happen like this. But after rumors began circulating last week that the 38-year-old wanted to return to Russia at the end of this season, he knew he had to come clean.
“I'm thinking I go home after this season," the Detroit Red Wings superstar told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. "I may not be done with hockey, but—it is hard to say—I think I am done playing in NHL.
“Because of the rumors out there, I wanted to clear this up now before the playoffs started so I can focus only on giving my best playoff performance,” he said after the Wings clinched their 25th consecutive trip to the postseason on Saturday afternoon. “And I wanted the fans to hear it from me, not someone else.”
In the end, it came down to family for Datsyuk. He was motivated by a desire to be closer to his 13-year-old daughter, who is being raised in Russia by his first wife.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said. “It did not happen yesterday. I talk with my daughter all the time. I see how she misses me, how she misses my advice…I want to come back and be closer.”
If this is the end—there's always a chance he could change his mind before signing his papers—it will close the books on one of the greatest careers in franchise history.
Datsyuk, who was twice passed over in the NHL draft before being made a sixth-round pick by Detroit in 1998, went on to become one of the greatest two-way players the game has ever seen. He scored 314 goals (seventh most by a Red Wing), 604 assists (fifth) and 918 points (sixth) and helped lead the club to two Stanley Cups (2002, 2008). He also earned the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward three times (2008-2010). His number 13 will one day be raised to the roof of the team's new arena. A Hall of Fame berth is a certainty.
Even though his game was in decline, he remains a productive player whose presence will be sorely missed. His departure though won't be measured simply by the hole he leaves in the roster. By leaving before his contract expires, he saddles Detroit with a massive salary cap burden.
Datsyuk has one year remaining on a contract that carries a $7.5-million cap hit. Since he signed the deal after he turned 35, that amount will count against the Wings next season whether or not he plays in the NHL.
There's a chance the Wings could package that final year with a solid pick or a prospect to a team looking to get to the cap floor, like Toronto. Either way though, it's going to cost the Wings. And that's something Datsyuk regrets.
“I feel very bad about it,” he said. “Looking back, I wish I had done a year-by-year contract, not a three-year contract. I stayed [out of] respect for the Ilitch family. I don't want to leave the team in disaster. But if I have to do over again, I would sign a different deal.”
Whatever that decision costs the team though is a problem for another day. For now, the focus is on stretching out this playoff run as long as possible, with both Datsyuk and Red Wings fans savoring every moment as one of the greatest chapters in franchise history comes to a close.