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Why the fan in me still can’t forgive Pavel Datsyuk

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New York Ranges v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Welcome to the doldrums of the hockey offseason. We can tell we’re in the doldrums because it’s time for the annual Sergei Fedorov jersey retirement debate. I won’t relitigate that here, but part of what always gets talked about now is other players deserving of the honor, and those comments reminded me that I still haven’t come to grips with a piece I intended to write last year:

I still haven’t forgiven Pavel Datsyuk as a fan.

Before you head to the comments to berate me about how easy it is to see why he chose to skip out on the last year of his contract and how easy it is to understand and accept his apology for not quite understanding the consequences of what he signed up for on that three-year deal, I want to let you know that as a father and as a professional I completely understand and forgive Pavel Datsyuk for making the choice that he made.

Just not as a fan.

The jersey retirement debate brought these feelings back up and although I wrote at the time of the news he would be leaving that there was no doubt in my mind that his jersey should have been raised at the Joe before they closed it down. While I don’t regret writing those words because they absolutely reflected what I felt at the time (and admitted to doing so emotionally), I also have no regrets telling you that I’ve changed my mind. Pavel Datsyuk is a Hall of Famer to be sure, but the fan in me still won’t put on the jersey of his that I mothballed in the summer of 2016 because he hurt the team.

It’s such a weird journey for me here because Datsyuk spent his career in Detroit becoming the culmination of everything I loved about the Red Wings. The passion of Yzerman and the fire of the Avs rivalry gave me plenty of emotional fuel, but the Russian Five cemented it. Among those five, my secret favorite was Slava Kozlov because he was shifty and the mostly-unheralded one of the group. When Datsyuk came along and took Kozlov’s number, he also seemed to inherit the same reputation - a shifty guy who wasn’t physical enough to make it in today’s NHL (not to mention the whole “being Russian” thing, which is still an automatic knock against any player to this day, to say nothing of how bad it was more than 15 years ago).

Datsyuk spent much of his career badly underrated and a point of stubborn pride for me. At times I felt I appreciated him MORE because he was essentially my secret. I know that’s silly, but I can’t imagine I’m the only fan who can latch on to a player just to be different from “the norm.” This is why it felt so good watching the accolades pour in for Datsyuk as he slowly earned the reputation I felt he always deserved. Datsyuk was my hockey hipster prize and was paying fan dividends in huge amounts (as much as it’s ever worth being that guy who says “I knew it all along” is worth, I suppose).

Datsyuk is also part of the reason my fandom evolved to where I can forgive him as a person for this decision while not forgiving him as a fan for it. The compartmentalization of my fandom was a slow process and not tied to any one huge event, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate that fan is short for “fanatic” and that sports fanaticism can be fun, but also should not be what I am as a person. This frees me to look at the logical side of any sports argument and also say that I don’t care about that logic and has been overall much healthier for me. Getting into a two-day funk because the Wings lost their last game once worked for me; it doesn’t anymore.

[As a quick aside, I don’t want to derail to talk more-specifically about the compartmentalization of fandom because that’s another 2,800 word essay, but I do feel I should mention how incredibly lucky and privileged I am to be able to do so. Not everybody is fortunate enough to be able to separate the ugly side of this sport from their everyday life and I’d like us all to be able to work to a point to include them in that privilege]

When it all comes down to it, I’m just a fan blathering my feelings out here on a blog. Pavel Datsyuk is a huge part of my Red Wings and general sports fandom. He’s a complicated human being, as we all are and he’s made decisions that fit right in with what any normal person’s decision-making process should fit. He didn’t owe it to me two years ago to play a miserable season to finish out a contract he regretted and I honestly can’t say how I would feel had he played that last season (especially if we had known he was miserable doing it out of a sense of duty to a contract structure built off a CBA that had already cost us more than 100 games of Pavel Datsyuk in the NHL).

I’m definitely not mad at him, but as a fan, I wouldn’t feel right seeing his number in the rafters either. He was an amazing player who did incredible things every night on the ice. If that were the only requirement for jersey retirement, then I fully accept his number should hang; it’s not the end of my own criteria though. Some wounds are worth hanging on to and I’ll always appreciate that my favorite Red Wing for more than a decade shouldn’t be in the rafters as a reminder that we’re all humans, even the ones who do superhuman things in every single game they play.