By KEITH GAVE
After helping Russia to a bronze medal finish at the World Championship – and presumably negotiating at the same time with some Kontinental Hockey League clubs while he’s under contract for another season with the Detroit Red Wings – Pavel Datsyuk went on vacation.
But before he causes irreparable harm to his legacy in Hockeytown, Datsyuk would be wise to take a moment and put in a call to Sergei Fedorov, who seems to regret his decision to leave Detroit before his time.
Datsyuk plans to meet with Red Wings GM Ken Holland in mid-June, and in all likelihood make official what has seemed like a foregone conclusion for months – that he will leave the NHL to finish his playing career in Russia. SKA Saint Petersburg appears to be his team of choice, though agent Dan Milstein insists no deal has been consummated and his client may still negotiate with other KHL teams.
No matter when it ends in the NHL for Datsyuk, this much is sure: With two Stanley Cup rings and seven individual NHL trophies on his mantle, he one day will be an Honored Member in the Hockey Hall of Fame, just as Fedorov was in November. But if Datsyuk expects the Red Wings to honor him along with the franchise’s other all-time greats by hanging his No. 13 from the rafters of their new arena, he can forget it.
Just like Fedorov can.
Debate over whether Fedorov’s No. 91 should be retired is a frequent topic of discussion in Detroit sports talk radio. But that’s pretty much where it begins and ends. All decisions about which numbers are retired and displayed on a banner above the ice belong to Mike and Marian Ilitch, the generous owners who value loyalty every bit as much as they do winning – and profits.
Fedorov sealed his fate when he turned his back on Ilitch’s offer of $50 million over five seasons on a new contract in 2003. Fedorov left $10 million on the table, signing with Anaheim for $40 million over four years. In an interview after his Hall of Fame induction, Fedorov said to “blame the agents” for his decision to leave Detroit prematurely.
If Datsyuk similarly burns his bridge with a year left on his contract, he’ll hurt the Wings even more, sticking them with a $7.5 million cap hit. The ownership family – son Chris is running the family entertainment and pizza empire with his parents well into their 80s – doesn’t speak publicly about these matters. But those close to the family say Datsyuk’s departure would be considered unforgivable.
Datsyuk, 38 in July, finally confirmed recently what had been speculated since last summer: He wants to return to Russia to be closer to his family and to play professional hockey there while he still has something in the tank. And the way he finished this season – pointless in five playoff games in a third straight first-round knockout – he doesn’t have a lot left.
In other words, he’s hardly been a difference-maker, even when paired with captain Henrik Zetterberg, the Euro-twins who were a once-lethal combination. They were largely ineffective together this season.
So Holland is bracing for the worst, expecting Datsyuk to announce he will not return to finish out his contract. He’ll be busy enough rebuilding a weakening roster and retooling an inexperienced coaching staff that seemed to lose its players in the closing weeks of the season. He can leave decisions about retiring numbers to his owners.
Had Fedorov stayed in Detroit and played his entire career for the Red Wings, there would be no need for this discussion. Retiring his number would be a slam-dunk. But he didn't stay. In fact, he first flirted with leaving Detroit in 1998, when he signed a heavily front-loaded contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. After scrambling with their bankers, the Ilitches matched the $38 million contract that called for Fedorov to be paid $28 million of that within six months of signing the deal.
He might have been forgiven for that; it was business, after all, and the Ilitches are no strangers to playing fiscal hardball.
Nevertheless, there may be room for compromise one day – at least regarding Fedorov. Twenty years after one of the most memorable eras in their long history, the Wings can honor a special group of players who were instrumental in helping them win two straight Stanley Cup titles: Hang a banner with the names and numbers of all the Russian Five, the first and only unit of former Soviet-born players to compete together for an NHL team.
Invite Scotty Bowman – the redoubtable coach who put all five of them together. Have him help hoist the banner to the rafters. It’s only fitting. Three of those players, after all, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, and Fedorov – Detroit’s only league MVP since Gordie Howe. The others: the ever-popular Vladimir Konstantinov, and Slava Kozlov.
Don’t retire their numbers. Keep them in service. That way Brendan Smith can continue to wear No. 2, Justin Abdelkader can wear No. 8. Everybody wins. Even Datsyuk gets a piece of that; he can keep wearing No. 13. If he sticks around.