Valtteri Filppula and Pavel Datsyuk with one of the kids who attended the camp. (Photo courtesy Maria Leonova)
Some guys just get it.
Pavel Datsyuk, the superstar of few words, has taken a couple weeks out of his summer for the past three years to give back to the community and provide a lucky group of kids with a unique hockey school experience.
Just outside of his hometown, Ekaterinburg, in Russia – in a setting that resembles Ontario’s Muskoka cottage country – Datsyuk ran two one-week camps that included instruction from NHL coaches, European players and a mixed martial-arts trainer.
“He continues to change my opinion of how people behave,” said Todd Woodcroft, a longtime NHL scout who has been involved with the camp since Day 1.
While the camp had been held at an arena within the city for the past two years, a new one was built 22 miles out of town in a place called Kurganovo – something the community could share and also help Datsyuk’s vision of improving player development in the area. With two ice pads, a tennis court, indoor gyms, indoor pools, a track, dormitories and more, the arena exceeded all expectations from the guys flying in from North America.
“We went last year and they were talking about how they wanted to build a new facility,” Woodcroft said. “We thought ‘Yeah, that’s awesome, we’ll send you some ideas over the year, tell you what works, put you in touch with people in the industry and so on.’ We arrived there this year and they had this facility completely built and it was…ridiculous. It rivals anything in Toronto and is probably better than most of those places.”
So not only is Datsyuk motivating a group of kids, but he’s motivating an entire region.
Joining the team this year for the first time was teammate Valtteri Filppula, who recognized how special it was and how much it meant to Datsyuk, so he had to become a part of it. And while Filppula has run camps himself in his native Finland, he had never seen anything quite like this one.
“He’s a good guy, I think that’s the simple reason why he does it,” Filppula said. “That’s Pav. He was really good with all the kids and he was there all the time and doing a lot of work with the kids, so I think this shows what kind of a guy he is. You can tell everybody there doesn’t have the best opportunities to get to play hockey, so it’s kids he can help."
After going from a one-week camp with 40 kids to a two-week camp with about twice as many entrants last year, Year 3 saw another rise in attendance. And while some kids do pay their way there, many come from out of town and Datsyuk subsidizes those who otherwise may not be able to attend. To help control costs further, Reebok supplies some of the equipment, like jerseys for kids and jumpsuits for the instructors.
The camp is broken into two, one-week sessions that are designed to simulate a training camp and a mini season. Over the first couple of days, the focus is on skill work and the kids go through different skill stations, such as puck protection, stickhandling and taking pucks off the boards – areas that allowed Datsyuk to become an award-winning NHLer. There’s even an off-ice component as MMA trainer Jeremy Clark instructs the kids on core strength and flexibility.
After a few days of training, the kids go through a “draft” and get set to play for a cup. And that’s when the NHL experience ramps up a little with player names being announced, arena music blaring and more.
“We try and treat it just like Game 7 of the Cup,” Woodcroft explained. “They’re put into two teams and two locker rooms and we show them how to hang up their stall like an NHLer.”
The kids stay in the arena’s dormitories and are provided with a meal plan. And through the whole thing Datsyuk is accessible to anyone and everyone who ever wished they could hang out with the superstar.
“The kids have complete access to Pav,” Woodcroft said. “We’ll walk in for a 40-minute break for lunch and he’s in there goofing around with the kids. He’ll just go around and sit at the tables and goof around with them.”
And while the purpose of the camp is to provide the kids with professional training ideas and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Datsyuk’s other main message is that hockey is just plain fun.
“It’s all positive; it’s all with smiles,” Woodcroft said. “I think a lot of times the kids there aren’t used to having the positive stuff. Pav must have said it a million times: ‘Hockey is fun. Fall down, get up. It’s OK if you fall down. If you miss it’s OK. You can still smile because you’re lucky to play this game.’ It’s cool to see a guy like that who gets it.”
And if you thought that was enough, Pavel perhaps didn’t. At the conclusion of the camps, instead of taking off on a planned summer vacation with his family, Datsyuk received a call from the mayor of Nizhnekamsk, who had heard what the Red Wing was doing and asked if he could bring a few of the trainers to his town for a master class.
“Pavel can’t say no, so myself and a couple other guys went,” Woodcroft said. “They sent a private plane to pick us up, fly us there and we got to the arena and there were thousands and thousands of people there watching; it was their main arena.
“It was surreal. They were so excited Pavel would do that; just that he would take an extra two days for nothing else than he’s just a good person.”
And the camp will be back next year and for years to come. In fact, next year Datsyuk plans on inviting about 20 NHLers to come train and even help out in the camp.
Hearing all these stories makes me want to join in the fun and absorb the unique and special experience.
“You could come on the ice and do whatever you want to do; you’d have an absolute blast and you’d spend a week with maybe the most humanitarian guy in the NHL,” Woodcroft said.
While there’s plenty of video evidence for why Datsyuk has won three consecutive Selke Trophies, you can also see how he earned his four Lady Byngs, too.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.