Recently, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk announced that at the end of these playoffs, he was going to leave the organization, and return to Russia to play in the KHL to end his career.
Oh, and leave the Wings with $7.5 million dollars of dead cap space in the process.
That’s an important point, but let’s set that aside for later, and instead go back to 1998.
In that year, a man named Sergei Fedorov was growing irritated by Mike Illitch low-balling him on contract negotiations, and signed a huge offer sheet with Illitch’s loathed rival, Peter Karmanos and the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a poison pill Illitch had to swallow, but it was not forgotten or forgiven.
Retribution would come five years later as Fedorov was again facing free agency. The Wings provided a contract offer that Sergei allegedly didn’t respond to promptly enough for their tastes. By the time he had decided to accept it, Illitch had already pulled the offer, and in its place sent increasingly small offers instead each time Fedorov refused.
Bear in mind, Fedorov already had evidence that Illitch had not negotiated with good faith before. And there is ample evidence of Illitch’s pettiness getting in the way of good sense (look up Illitch’s treatment of Sparky Anderson up to the latter’s death sometime). There was no particular reason to think that there was going to be any sensible negotiations from that point forward.
So, Sergei Fedorov became a Mighty Duck, fully within his rights as a free agent, and promptly became the Red Wings franchise’s version of Lord Voldemort; He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, spit on by the organization and the fans.
Now, we go back to the modern day. Where Fedorov walked away from a team that had been more than willing to spend whatever he wanted in an era with no salary cap, and thus meant Illitch could offer whatever he wanted to anyone to fill #91's spot on the roster... Pavel Datsyuk is walking away with a year left on his signed in good faith contract, and leaving dead space of approximately 10% of the team’s salary cap with nothing in return. That dead space will make it incredibly difficult to replace him.
So, with that in mind... Pavel Datysuk should be more akin to Joseph Stalin in the eyes of the organization and the fans, right?
Of course not. If there is any reliable trait to be found in the fandom of Detroit sports, its that we will perform any mental gymnastics necessary to justify our preconceived narratives.
Narratives are one of the dumbest things in sports, but fans especially feed into them because it makes rooting for the face and jeering for the heel easy. It’s even better when subtle prejudice can play a factor, because then we can be terrible people while having a convenient reason to claim we’re not.
There was a narrative around Sergei Fedorov; the outsider from the Soviet Union. Brash, cocky, never always gave his best in any given game, choosing only to do so intermittently, nothing like the homeboy (ironic considering he was Canadian) Steve Yzerman who always gave 110% every game.
(Disclosure: this was a narrative I bought into for some time myself.)
It was a narrative the Wings would shamelessly use to shape public opinion. Sources that leaked that one of Fedorov’s stipulations was that he would supplant Yzerman as team captain (sources that at this point should be considered tainted at best), or that he “refused” a better deal to sign for less money in Anaheim. It was a blatant hit on Fedorov’s reputation because Illitch was insulted that Sergei would dare ask for fair market value after all the Red Wings did to get him out of the USSR.
The narrative on Pavel Datsyuk was different from the start. He was always the demure, mild-mannered Russian. He never once openly complained, and gladly accepted the “A” on his sweater without so much as a peep. Where Sergei Fedorov dated Anna Kournikova in a high profile tabloid marriage/divorce, Pavel kept his personal life quiet.
As a result, the “blue collar” Detroit crowd “accepted” him. And so while Fedorov did nothing but watch Mike Illitch and the Red Wings bend themselves over, then walk away from the nigh abusive relationship, he to this day remains persona non grata by a wide segment of the organization and fans (look at the “tribute” the Wings gave Fedorov this year at some point if you don’t think so), Pavel Datsyuk cripples the franchise’s ability to recover from his departure, and gets nothing but praise from nearly every direction.
Don’t get it twisted. No one should hate Pavel Datsyuk. There’s no reason to think that his departure is done with any malice whatsoever.
But no one should hate Sergei Fedorov either. Both men walked away from the Detroit Red Wings by the rules the franchise and the league agreed to at the time. But if you are going to hate, you should have the courtesy of being consistent.