I'm 22 years old and for most of my time being a Red Wing hockey fan, I watched Pavel Datsyuk make magic.
He made Marty Turco look helpless. He created a void in the space-time continuum against Nashville. He made Logan Couture look like he pooped his pants--on his birthday no less.
While Henrik Zetterberg will always hold my heart as my favorite Red Wing from this past decade, Pavel is just as much a part Red Wing hockey to me and I don't think I'll ever be in as much awe of skill and talent by a man wearing the winged wheel.
If it seems like I'm spending too much qualifying in this preamble, it's cause I am. It's hard to broach this topic because I don't want to, especially in the wake of him officially leaving the team on Saturday. But I think we have to talk about Pavel's comment from 2013 regarding Russia's anti-gay laws:
Pavel Datsyuk on Yelena Isinbaeva words regarding anti-gay law: 'I'm an orthodox and that says it all'— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) August 22, 2013
When he announced his retirement today, I wasn't surprised by it. I saw it coming. I prepped myself after the short-lived playoff run ended. What I didn't expect were these comments to come back up. I was reminded of them by a fairly blunt tweet from Ryan Lambert. I knew they happened, but I guess I forgot because I let my feelings towards what an athlete does on the ice overcome what he says or does off of it.
today the NHL loses one of its greatest homophobes— your nice friend rl (@twolinepass) June 18, 2016
Yeah, he didn't outright say that gay people should be condemned to hell. He didn't say he hated people of a different sexual orientation. But while I don't like putting words in a person's mouth, it's what he didn't say that bothered me at the time and still bothers me to this day.
This church has been an outspoken opponent of any civil liberties of LGBTQ people in Russia and in January, it's leader claimed that
I understand the context that he would go on to meet Putin that day and that he likely didn't want to create a stir in his beloved home country because he disagreed with official state policy. I also understand that he was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church and that religion carries beliefs that conflict with acceptance of same-sex love.
But that doesn't make me happy. No matter your religious beliefs, believing that people who love differently than you do will set ruin to a nation is super bad.
I can't change Pavel's beliefs and after those comments in 2013, I was angry for a bit. But then they slowly slipped from my memory. I went back to hockey Pavel and I love hockey Pavel and always will. But with his retirement, we begin the long process of evaluating his legacy and whether it's comfortable or not, these comments are a part of it.
Thinking about that today brought me to several questions:
How do we separate athlete from person?
Why cheer for a person who we may not love when they step off the playing field?
Why did Mets fans then and now Nationals fans cheer on Daniel Murphy despite his disagreement with a gay person's lifestyle?
For me, the answer is fairly simple and short: We go to sports to escape and enjoy a game. The toxicity of the outside world more or less dissipates when the team we love ties their skates and takes the ice. When the Red Wings are on, I find myself being emotionally involved in a game. The game doesn't determine what happens at work tomorrow, the health of my family or how much money I owe on my student loans.
Getting home from a bad day and flipping on a game--no matter the result--calms my nerves. Will I be upset if the Wings lose 4-3 in OT because Jonathan Ericsson made a dumb mistake in his own zone and shouldn't have been out there in the first place because Blashill doesn't yet know how to deploy lines or defensive pairings? You're sure as shit it does. But I get over it quickly because the Red Wings are not my livelihood.
Sports teams never should become that important, lest they become like Baylor, Penn State, Tennessee, the NFL and others--where winning is valued above humanity.
Pavel is a player who defined what it meant to be a skilled forward and a two-way player. If his stat line and Selkes didn't tell you that story, the AND1 mixtapes on YouTube of him putting guys who are wearing skates on skates on will.
Thanks to awood40 for his always-awesome videos.
The joy he gave me playing a game for this organization is unforgettable and as this great blog tweeted after his announcement was made official, the skill level in this league took a hit with his departure.
The drop in talent level for the NHL from just one man leaving is going to be sizable.— Winging It In Motown (@wingingitmotown) June 18, 2016
But on the other side of the coin--despite his great involvement with the youth hockey scene both in the metro Detroit area and in Russia along with what seemed like a generally bubbly, hospitable personality, along with the respect I feel for him going home to be with his family--there's a large part of me that feels Pavel Datsyuk the man leaves something to be desired.