I woke up on Sunday already knowing that it was going to be time to face reality. I thought that meant a more-sober reflection on the Red Wings' extending the streak on the very last day of the season with only 93 points and being one of only two playoff teams with a negative goal differential (historically a very strong indicator about a team's ability to make noise in the playoffs). It meant a reflection on the task at hand.
Instead I woke up to this:
Talk about a gut-punch.
Mitch Albom pays attention to the Red Wings maybe three or four times per year. Lately he's been busy working up a deal to write the movie based on John Scott's unreal trip to the All-Star Game. But, when Mitch writes about the Wings, it's always worth a read. This time was no different.
I haven't written or really spoken about my feelings about the possibility of Pavel before today. I did say something on last week's WIIM Radio that I'd have a lot of emotions about it once we got to that point and now that we're there, I sure as hell wasn't wrong. After reading the piece, it's not really what I was expecting.
I'll tell you honestly that in the immediate aftermath of Elliotte Friedman dropping the rumor on HNIC against the Leafs, I leaned more towards the "he signed a three-year deal and he should honor it" side of the takes than I did towards "Pavel can do whatever he wants to do and we have to be fine with it." Not to the point of thinking that the Wings or the NHL should go with the drastic step of flat-out preventing him from playing outside of North America at all like was brought up in 30 thoughts this week, but more of an annoyance with the mess.
In a way, I'm still annoyed with the mess, but not even in the slightest with Datsyuk. Not after reading what he had to tell Albom:
Datsyuk, notoriously quiet off the ice, agreed to this interview (conducted in both English and Russian translation) only if the story did not run until after the Wings' regular season was over, not wishing to distract from the challenging goal of making the playoffs. After the Wings qualified Saturday (thanks to a Boston Bruins' loss), Datsyuk said via phone: "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. And I wanted the fans to hear it from me, not someone else."
I understand the cynical spin side to all of this. Datsyuk's agent has been running his Twitter account for some time and there's always been a sickly little PR spin coming out in regards to that which made it abundantly clear it wasn't Datsyuk running his own social media show. This whole paragraph is absolutely a kind of PR, but I don't think it's the gross, manipulative kind of stuff that's become synonymous with those two letters. I think Datsyuk's motivation to not make it a distraction comes from a desire to not bring more media chaos to a locker room struggling to find its identity and I think the desire to be the one to tell the fans himself is just the guy Datsyuk is.
Unless Holland is able to trade the Datsyuk contract to a team looking to hit the cap floor, this one is going to be a thorn in the side of the Red Wings and their fans for an entire year and for who knows how many years beyond (after all, it wasn't just the Franzen deal that drove Hossa to Chicago in that cap crunch year... Jiri Hudler bolting away from arbitration that summer had an effect just as well). With the cap either staying stagnant or rising just a small amount, the $7.5M charge is going to be nothing small to manage.
As far as the blame laid to Datsyuk?
"I feel very bad about it," said Datsyuk, who is walking away from that $7.5 million. "Looking back, I wish I had done a year-by-year contract, not a three-year contract. I stayed (last year) in respect for Ilitch family. I don't want to leave team in disaster. But if I have to do over again, I would sign a different deal. I didn't realize it at the time."
Does Datsyuk saying he regrets the contract as much as fans may come to regret it help? You bet your ass it does. I'm not saying he should be completely absolved (honestly, I'm not trying to tell you what to feel here at all; I'm still trying to work through it all myself). But, Datsyuk wouldn't be the first pro athlete to regret a contract because of a changing landscape.
The change in landscape being the increased pull to be around for his daughter is what absolves almost all of the blame here for me.
Datsyuk is going to be a Hall of Famer, and he should be. His NHL numbers have been hurt by more than 100 North American games thrown away by labor strife (including 82+ of those being during his prime), but it's not the NHL Hall of Fame. The totality of Datsyuk's hockey playing career and his accomplishments make him a lock to anybody without a crushing anti-Russian bias.
The bigger question for Wings fans will be whether the #13 should ever be worn again by a Red Wings player.
My personal criteria for the honor of a jersey retirement has always been simple: If there's any doubt at all about whether the jersey should hang, then my answer is no. It's not about stats and it's not about intangibles for me, but both are important.
After all this, in my most-emotional state about Datsyuk leaving, my answer is that I have no doubt in my mind that Pavel Datsyuk's jersey should hang. In fact, I think that his jersey should hang in the arena it helped keep full from 2002 on, in the arena Pavel made his home before going back home. I know it's a mess of a consideration saying that jersey retirement should happen next year, with the possibility that the Wings are carrying a dead $7.5M cap hit for the man and with the likelihood that he's too busy playing KHL games to come for that, but I want it to happen and I don't care about the logistics.
The Wings have a monumental task immediately in front of them before we have to deal with the business side of the sport. Detroit's playoffs will open in Tampa Bay against the team that eliminated them last season. Detroit will go in as the weakest team in the weaker conference.
I'm going to enjoy as many games of Pavel Datsyuk as we have left. I'm going to marvel at the skill he still possesses which many of his peers can barely touch. I'm going to worry about all the crap to come in the future when we get to there. Until then, I'm watching for Pavel.