While I don't believe Datsyuk and former Detroit Lions great Barry Sanders are exactly comparable in legend, still any debate about retirement determining a player's character takes me back to 1999.
I was an overfed 12 year old inexplicably listening to 1130 WDFN "The Fan" around 10pm on the garage radio one balmy summer's break evening. Hosts Art Regner and Sean Baligian broke the story then stayed on the air until 1am to yell and grieve with us that Barry Sanders had faxed a statement to the Wichita Eagle abruptly announcing his retirement from football. Coincidentally I happen to be wearing his adult size 48 away jersey. I ran in, woke my dad in tears, stormed down stairs, dramatically ripped off the jersey, slammed it into the trash can as if someone was watching then sulked myself to sleep. My father recovered the jersey and it's still in my parents basement dresser today, largely because I grew to forgive Barry in a short amount of time. The timing of his decision, the night before training camp began, was peculiar. But he's an adult who can make whatever professional decision he wants.
I was a child, who chose to react to a grown man acting outside my control, like a child.
Sometimes it's not a retirement. Sometimes it's how we feel we have ownership over a player--a person, as fans.
While the numbers weren't as inflated as his insane mid-90's stats, in 2002-03 Sergei Fedorov looked all-around good as ever playing with multiple linemates, including a sophomore Datsyuk and rookie Henrik Zetterberg. However, the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings had one of THOSE years where they fell asleep at the wheel in the first round, finding themselves surprisingly down 3-0 against the Mike Babcock led Mighty Ducks of Anaheim entering game 4.
Hovering over that season like a billowing, gnarling storm cloud was Sergei's next contract. Red Wings fans and Mike Ilitch still held a public grudge against Fedorov for signing an offer sheet from rival, and fellow Metro Detroit businessman, Carolina Hurricanes owner, Pete Karmanos at the beginning of the 1997-98 season. Fedorov held out the first 61 games of the season returning just in time to jolt the Wings to a repeat Cup performance but costing him the hearts of fans long term.
Clearly 2003 was to be an off-season of reckoning. Going into that playoff series, every hockey insider knew he was gone. Fedorov wanted to come back but he balked at their initial offer then they pulled it back. In true gamesmanship, the Red Wings preposterously claimed to be broke--in part posturing for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming in 2004--holding a hard line on shorter term at $10 million less than Fedorov's final asking price. Considering it was the pre-cap era, this was a papercut turned into a chasm.
Down by a goal late in game 4, Fedorov raced to the puck deep into the corner, flung an I-Need-A-Rebound-Or-Whistle-Please heave at the net that redirected off a Ducks defenseman past goaltender J.S. Gigure and in. A defibrillator shock ironically coming from the player who, at that point, had no intention continuing life as a Wing.
Sure enough Steve Ruchin completed the upset sweep for the Mighty Ducks at 6:53 of the first overtime. That off-season Fedorov signed with those same Ducks for less than the Red Wings final offer. Then his career went descending through hell (the Columbus Blue Jackets circa 2006) to surprise redemption as playoff hero with the Washington Capitals at the end of his NHL career in 2009.
No matter what uniform he wore he was met with boos returning to Joe Louis Arena. The llitches, arguably the most influential family in Metro Detroit, cast a pall on Fedorov as a traitor despite it being publicly reported that his first choice was to remain with the franchise. The narrative was set; Sergei sold Detroit out and how dare you turn your back on the franchise and not be a loyal Red Wing like Chris Chelios or Brendan Shanahan.
Slowly the tide has begun to turn. Fedorov played in the 2013 Red Wings Winter Classic Alumni game and was honored with his own ceremony at Joe Louis Arena after being inducted into the 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame Class. His no.91 remains out of circulation and there is only speculation of it being retired. As the Ilitches relent and time heals wounds, fans are slowly coming around. Still, some feel Fedorov owes them something back. He acted outside of their and the Ilitches control and it was something many could not handle.
Now a different Russian is under scrutiny for leaving Detroit before fans decided he was supposed to and yes, before his contract dictated he was supposed to. I cannot deny Datsyuk put the Red Wings in an incredibly difficult situation. Now most damning to both him and Ken Holland, we've heard multiple accounts that he really hasn't wanted to be here the past two seasons.
Walking with Pavel to the last NHL press conference. After 2 years in the making, this day was very emotional... pic.twitter.com/UplbnPwS8j— Dan Milstein (@danmilstein) June 22, 2016
It makes sense, he acted like a partner going through the motions in a bad relationship; not wanting to hurt the other person but clearly no longer in love.
Datsyuk was checked out. It's possibly best for both parties--$7 million cap hit aside--that he go back to Russia to make room for some fresh legs. He can be happy and (if managed correctly) the Red Wings can maybe get closer to much needed rejuvenation.
I understand there are season ticket holders and fans who pay hard earned money to see these athletes hold up their end of the bargain. I get the frustration when we get so much entertainment and distraction from their athleticism and brilliance.
We can't control these athletes. We might feed their egos and indirectly drive up their salaries. But when millions are on the line and their physical well-being is at stake, all we can do is sit back and watch, just like we've been doing this entire time.