Detroit Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock has called center Pavel Datsyuk the best player in the NHL. This month, The Hockey News referred to Datsyuk as "the league's quietest superstar." It's more than a little possible that they're both right.
Datsyuk is currently fourth in the NHL in points scored, which is where he finished last season -- not bad for a player who is also considered one of the best defensive forwards in hockey. His Stanley Cup championship with the Red Wings last season was the second of his seven-year NHL career.
We all know what Datsyuk is capable of doing on the ice; but we wanted to find out more about what this Russian star thinks about his team, his game, his opponents and his life. Our interview, conducted last week, covered so much ground that we're splitting it into two parts.
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Today, Datsyuk focuses on the Red Wings' Cup defense and the various obstacles the team has faced (including one from Gary Bettman that kept Datsyuk out of the lineup for a night); why he committed to Detroit in a new contract through 2014, and what he thinks the team will look like next season; how it feels to hear Marian Hossa called "a traitor" in Pittsburgh; and which player he believes is truly the best in the NHL.
Know this: Datsyuk has a dry but very sharp sense of humor. It comes through here in a few places; if really shines through in tomorrow's chat about beer, cell phone ringtones and Chris Chelios's age. Please enjoy.
What's been different about defending this Stanley Cup compared to defending the one you won with Detroit in 2002?
The main difference is that I am not 23 now. I look at it a little different now. Also, the expectations from me and my game are different this time around. But for many years now every team wants to beat Detroit. Especially now, when we're the defending Stanley Cup champions. I don't think the teams we play need any special motivation to get ready for games against us. All teams are fired up when they play against us.
I don't thing anyone hates us that much. We have never had popcorn thrown at us and I hope that will never happen. But I don't think we are liked in Pittsburgh because of last year's finals. Canadian fans are always passionate about their teams, [too]. But overall it is difficult to answer this question simply because we have a lot of fans in virtually every city we play. In some places, we have so many Red Wings fans that it feels like we're playing at home.
Obviously one big difference was playing an outdoor game this season. What was the strangest thing about playing in Wrigley Field, and what do you remember from your goal in that game?
First of all, I have to mention the atmosphere inside the stadium. I have to say that a lot of childhood memories came rushing back, when we as kids played on outside rinks. Secondly, I have to mention the 40,000 fans who packed the Wrigley Field. I couldn't even imagine this happening at first. Thirdly, I have to say good words about the way the whole event was organized. It was such a pleasure to be there and participate in the Winter Classic.
What do I also remember? It wasn't that cold, but the heaters on players' benches were worse than heated car seats. It was very hot.
Didn't you feel that, perhaps, fans were seated too far from the ice?
Well, baseball fields are not really made for hockey. I personally think that it would have been better to play at a football stadium where you have fans closer to the ice and all around the ice. I just feel that some of the fans were seated too far from the action.
How can I compare the two? This season both of them are playing to 80-90 percent of their potential. We have had a few games when our goaltenders won games for us. Their styles are a little different, but both are very effective.
The rivalry with the San Jose Sharks has intensified this season. Are you worried about facing them in the playoffs, or do you believe they'll just fold again?
I think this season they are showing all the right signs that they will go deep in the playoffs. They also play a new system this year under coaches who worked in our system. I think they have a great chance this season.
Do you think your rivalry with the Sharks can one day overshadow the one with Colorado?
Maybe. But the Avalanche and the Red Wings are considered fierce rivals. It's been like this for a long, long time. Maybe lately our battles have lost a bit of spark, but it's still a great rivalry. Maybe our games are not as intense as they were when I first came to the NHL, but the rivalry is as strong as ever.
One of the strangest parts of this season was when you and Lidstrom were forced to sit out a game after skipping All-Star Weekend in Montreal. At any point during that controversy, did you have a desire to say something to Gary Bettman?
I was a little unhappy with this decision and I didn't agree with it. But you have to look at this situation from both sides. Maybe some kind of a fine should be in place to create precedent and deter hockey players from doing the same thing again. That's because a lot of people are now saying that Datsyuk and Lidstrom are rude.
Did anyone at any point tell you that all you had to do was to show up in order to avoid the suspension?
Honestly, no one told me anything. But even if I were told, I wouldn't have come. Why would I go there? To show that I am injured? [The suspension] was just another day off.
Some Detroit fans believe the NHL is out to get the Red Wings, that there is a conspiracy against the team. Do any of the players feel that way?
I have a very particular job. My job is not to think about any kind of conspiracies, but to play to the best of my abilities. That's why I want to refrain from answering this question.
You signed with Detroit through 2014 for $6.7 million per season, which is less than what Henrik Zetterberg is making and much less than what Alexander Ovechkin is making. Why did you value staying with the Red Wings more than making millions more in another city?
First of all, you can't make all the money in the world.
On the other hand, I am enjoying playing here very much. I have progressed here so much. I like everything in Detroit and love it here. And money is not the most important thing in anyone's life.
How concerned are you, playing in the Detroit until 2014, that you may suffer an injury from all the octopus slime on the ice during home games?
I have never seen anything like that. I think hockey players are all great skaters and can avoid all the octopuses.
With Zetterberg signing that big contract, will Marian Hossa still be a Red Wing next season? What about Johan Franzen?
I heard that after Zetterberg was signed, Ken Holland spends a lot more time speaking with Franzen's agent in order to re-sign Johan. But I don't know anything about Hossa's situation. This question is not for me to answer. I don't want to mislead anyone with my answers.
About Hossa: The Penguins fans chanted "traitor" when he touched the puck in your game in Pittsburgh. Thinking about his leaving one Stanley Cup finalist for another, do they have a valid argument that he is a traitor?
I understand why they liked Hossa. He is such a great player, and he would have helped Pittsburgh -- one-hundred percent. But a player's career is very short. He should be free to decide his own fate. It is obvious that you cannot please everyone with your decisions.
You once told the Red Wing broadcasters that you like to "dangle, dangle." What the heck does that mean?
Now I am going to have problems with my Russian! How should I explain it? It's like dancing rock-n-roll with a puck. You pick a puck on your stick and you dance around on the ice with it.
What kind of stick do you use to create your amazing tricks with the puck on the ice?
I use a Reebok stick. For now, I belong to them. As for the curve on my stick, a funny story. When I came to Detroit's training camp for the first time, I had a Titan4 with a big curve. When the coaches saw the stick, they came up to me and said: ‘Bowman is not going to like it if you get two minutes for using an illegal stick.' Right there and then, I started to change the curve on my stick to be within the legal limits.
What NHL team did you dream playing for when you were young?
When I was young I was dreaming on playing. It didn't matter to me where. Of course from the very beginning I wanted to play for Avtomobilist from my home town of Ekaterinburg. I couldn't even imagine playing anywhere else. Anywhere else, like Detroit, was just a miracle.
Where were you when Detroit won the Stanley Cup for the first time with the Russian Five?
Right around that time I was trying to break into the Avtomobilist first team. At that time, I couldn't even dream that big that I would one day play for Detroit.
Other than someone on your own team, who is the best player in the NHL and why?
I cannot name just one. Look around, you have Malkin carrying his team on his shoulders. Ovechkin started the season slow, but look at him now! Joe Thornton is another guy who started a little slow and is now picking in up a lot. Chara looks very strong in defense. Boyle and Blake in San Jose are very good. Evgeni Nabokov is always very solid in goal. Backstrom from Minnesota is very good. I honestly cannot name just one player. There are a lot of players this year who are really a pleasure to watch.
Who do you think is the most underrated player in the NHL?
I am a very shy person, so I cannot name him. But you can hear that player in your receiver right now talking to you.
Who is the toughest defenseman to play against in the NHL?
Once again, I really cannot name one. All of them are like an insurmountable wall to me!
Do you think Russian players are treated with more respect nowadays when there are three Russians in the top four league leaders in points?
I think we were always treated with respect. Even a year ago or more. But guys like Ovechkin and Malkin will never stop and will keep proving themselves year after year. Maybe the way we're looked at is changing a little bit, especially after the guys showed themselves at last year's World Championships in Canada. But we have to show it and prove it year after year. The Olympics are right around the corner. That will be another step.
(Ed. Note: For those new to Dmitry's interviews, they are conducted in Russian and then translated by Dmitry into English for the blog.)