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A Moment of Magic
How did resource constraints and environmental factors shape Pavel Datsyuk into a star? Researchers set out to uncover the unlikely alchemy of a Magic Man.
“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.”
They say golden hour falls at dusk, but I believe magic hour in Saint Petersburg commences around 9 am.
My apartment faces Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, a Neoclassical icon of our skyline commissioned in 1818. At night, its magnificent gilded dome is illuminated—but that is not the moment I love the most.
There is a window of time each morning when daylight begins to dilute the sky from deep violet to a pastel iris. The dome glows copper, not yet extinguished from the night. A legion of angels at its perimeter, oxidized to antique jade, guard 900 pounds of gold inside, sixteen tons of malachite. There is just something about this color palette—one that only exists for a moment, before the spotlights are snuffed out—that defines the splendor of Saint Petersburg to me. Blink precisely at 9:21 and it’s gone.
We are the unique expressions of a moment in time. The circumstances that conspired to make us who we are balance so delicately on decisions—some of which we make, but most of which we do not. The fragility of this identity is both precarious and alluring, whether or not you subscribe to some fairytale interpretation of destiny.
What could be so singular about a young boy in Soviet-era Yekaterinburg, meticulously caring for hand-me-down hockey sticks on an outdoor ice sheet? More importantly, what could be so spectacular about the timing of his maturation—the constellation of factors, including economic hindrances, that collided to produce a supernova?
Well, I’ll tell you. His name is Pavel Datsyuk, and if he had been born anywhere else, at any other point in time, we may never have known the fullest extent of his magic. Datsyuk is the alchemy of resource constraints and politics, Anatoly Tarasov and changing times. The spells and charms that forged his magic are neither magnificent nor abundant. He was not the spontaneous creation of instagram-famous skills coaches or expensive VR simulators. In fact, he is the consequence of something quite the opposite—humble, even mundane—and that in and of itself is extraordinary.
Researchers Mark O’Sullivan, Vladislav Bespomoshchnov and Clifford Mallett set out to distill the Magic Man to his essence, a tall task that involved disciplined attention to detail—not to mention an in-depth conversation with Pavel himself. In “Pavel Datsyuk: Learning, Development and Becoming the ‘Magic Man,’” the authors seek to uncover the circumstances that contributed to a skillset so precise that it has entered the lexicon as an adjective: “Datsyukian.” From the resource constraints that defined Pavel’s hesitance to overtrain a slapshot, to felt shoes on outdoor ice that may explain his otherworldly cutbacks, I chatted with Vladislav and Mark to learn more about the makings of a Magic Man.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): What inspired you to dive into the alchemy of Pavel Datsyuk?
Mark O’Sullivan (MO): I was presenting at an ice hockey conference in Toronto in 2019 on skill learning in young athletes, debunking a few myths. I reconnected with Todd Woodcroft there, who I met in Stockholm when he was assistant coach of the Swedish National Team. He started telling me about Pavel Datsyuk and how a culture can influence your skills. I actually put some of the information he gave me into the presentation.
If we take for example the Brazilians, how many of them learn to play football on different surfaces because of futsal, beach football, everything. Certain skills emerge because of the culture—including the influence of samba, capoeira. The whole way of movement, of performing specific skills is connected to the culture. It was actually Todd who suggested that we get in touch with Pavel. Vlad had done a great paper already on [Anatoly] Tarasov, which I really loved. We found a lot of ways that we could connect the stories of Tarasov and Pavel. I managed to get Pavel's contact through Todd and we figured that it was best to interview Pavel in Russian, so that's when Vlad took over.
GK: Vlad, you know I cannot delay any conversation involving Anatoly Tarasov. Let’s start there. What specific elements of his legacy or philosophy play a role in this story?
Vladislav Bespomoshchnov (VB): As we know, Tarasov was at the forefront of the development of ice hockey in the Soviet Union. He influenced the amount of backyard sports that were played and how the popularity of ice hockey was growing throughout the nation. It was quite common for football players to begin playing hockey in winter, and then hockey players were playing football in the summer. Those two sports were extremely connected to each other.
Today, the trend toward multi-sport training has become quite extensive in that federations are highlighting the need for multi-sport engagement of kids from an early age. Of course, due to some social constraints, it's getting harder and harder to combine two sports when you grow up.
But something stood out at that time—which was how methodical Tarasov was in terms of using the benefits of different sports in order to teach the game of ice hockey, or to develop physical qualities of players through other sports. Pavel explicitly stated that you can learn hockey through other sports by reading the distance between opponents.
MO: Tarasov seemed to be very, very interested in human movement in sports. How a human moved was almost like an art. Tarasov seemed really interested in the dynamic movement of football players, or even basketball players, as individuals and as teams. I think that's what he wanted to harness in his ice hockey philosophy, because from what I understand, it was a very linear game at the time. Tarasov broke that mold by utilizing different ideas.
It's interesting because in the fifties, we had the great Hungarian football team, which I would say had a similar way of playing to Tarasov's USSR hockey team—this varying, weaving movement, switching of positions and a very dynamic system. The Hungarians famously beat England at Wembley in the early fifties, and the English were bamboozled by this movement. Hungary was an Eastern Bloc country at the time, so I'm wondering if there were some connections.
VB: And let's not forget that Tarasov was originally a football coach who transitioned to hockey when the orders came, so to speak. Tarasov was not only interested in individual players, how they move, but also the team dynamics and how tactical solutions could be deployed in ice hockey from other sports.
GK: Let’s talk a bit about the other sports Pavel played—some of which seemed to be variants of hockey and football on different surfaces (similar to the earlier discussion of futsal).
VB: In Russia in winter, as Pavel said, you came to the ice rink and it may have had snow on top of it. You could play football there, and every bump could change how the ball bounced or how you ran. If you cleaned the ice sheet, then you could play hockey. You were within the same environment, but there were different surface constraints and different objects to play with. Nevertheless, the goal was the same—to outplay your opposition and to score a goal.
MO: Kids played ice hockey in winter, probably football in the summer, but they also invented games as well. As Pavel himself said, we were just kids having fun—just like the Brazilians with Ginga, which is the sway movement that you get in capoeira and samba.
GK: How interesting—Pavel made the association with Ginga?
MO: He actually said that in the interview.
VB: He highlighted a particular game that tells you quite a bit about him as a person and as a player:
What I liked, and what I like to this day, is to play ice hockey in felt boots and not with the puck but with the rubber ball. Playing in felt boots really helps you to develop balance, as it is very slippery. Also, you develop an understanding of distance and learn how to read and anticipate the game by making fake moves because you know your opponent cannot stop. Even when you are defending, you must read the actions of the opponent and predict his next move in the situation.
It shows how analytical he is when he engages with the opponent. He constantly looks at the disadvantages that his opponent can have and what things his attacking plays, so to say, can exploit. If you go to YouTube for example, you can find there are numerous minutes of legendary Datsyuk cutbacks—a skillset which may have emerged from this game.
MO: An important point here is that I don't think these games were specifically designed to make better ice hockey players. I think they were specifically designed by kids because they were going to have fun, and there was meaning and value to it. In a lot of society today, when we speak about kids, it’s about obesity and children needing to move more. But children don't move to get healthier, they move because there's meaning and value. A child climbs a tree to see further, to climb higher than his friend, or to steal an apple, but not to improve coordination. That happens to just possibly be a result. A lot of these movements emerged from playing with felt boots on the ice, but it's really important that these were kids looking to create something of meaning and value.
When I was in Canada, I was looking up Datsyuk, and there were all of these results like, "Learn to play like Pavel! One-on-one coaching with expert coach for X amount of dollars." It completely misses the point. You can be inspired by his skills and try to mirror them, but you're not going to play like Pavel, because his skillset emerged from a very unusual environmental constraint.
GK: One of the most fascinating pieces of this paper for me was about how resource shortages impacted the skillset he developed— and they created a strength, not a deficit. Can you talk a bit about how a lack of sticks encouraged Pavel to favor a wrist shot over a slapshot?
VB: I can bet that Pavel can make a slapshot, but at that time, he didn't want to abuse his stick with it. When you have one stick and you don’t know when you are going to get the next one—and probably the stick is twice your size—you suddenly need to figure out how to get around with it because it’s the only thing you have. It certainly takes you out of your comfort zone to find a unique solution. Now you can bend the stick and you develop a certain shooting technique, but if you have a stick as a child that you cannot bend, you need to find another way to get the puck effectively to the net and pass the goaltender.
MO: Pavel is holding the stick in a certain way to protect it, which means that his whole body, the whole system—how his body is organized—is completely different as well. Somewhere there emerged this unorthodox technique, because he's using and positioning his body in very different ways when in possession of the puck as well, completely different from other players.
Just to go off-piste now, Ringo Starr, the drummer of The Beatles, had a distinctive style of backbeat, because on the second beat of every bar, there was a slight delay. It was his signature, and it inspired millions of bands to play like this. You had all of these world-class drummers trying to copy his style, but they couldn't get it exactly right. And then in the '90s, he was on the Elvis Costello Show and they asked about his drumming style. He said, "I'm a left-handed drummer that learned to play on a right-handed kit, and nobody ever told me." So he actually drops his shoulder. He plays with his shoulder on the second beat of every bar, which creates this delay, and his rolls on the drum are all backwards, but nobody told him.
Pavel’s skillset emerged under certain constraints. It’s very interesting that he was so conscious of this, of protecting his stick. Todd told me that Pavel used the least amount of sticks in the NHL.
GK: What are some of the most interesting insights you gleaned from direct conversation with Pavel?
VB: One comment that stood out for me is that he would deliberately put himself into a disadvantaged position—“it’s more interesting to play if victory has a price,” he said. There potentially might be a side of moral reasoning as well—if I know I’m a little bit better than the others, why should I play for a stronger team when the weaker team needs my help? It reminds me of an account when Valery Kharlamov had his first car crash and couldn’t return to practice with the CSKA main team. Tarasov had him practice with children, and he would start to play one versus five. To an extent, it reminded me of the way Pavel and his friend would play two versus fifteen against younger players or something like that.
MO: One thing that stood out for me when I read through the interview was how Pavel believed that there was little interest today in developing a holistic athlete. There's a lot of talk now among governing bodies about a player-centered, more holistic approach. But for me, I see this as different-colored bells and whistles on the same thing as we've always done. If you want to have a holistic approach, you must understand the social-cultural context that an athlete is embedded in as well. It's very, very important.
I think Pavel’s reflection was on a lot of these isolated, one-size-fits-all technical trainings that go on today. There is very little recognition of the young player's social-cultural context. Every kid that turns up in training has a biography of experiences and opportunities afforded to them up to that moment in time. I'm hoping that this paper will illuminate that as well. Instead of “learning to play like Pavel,” maybe learn a bit about Pavel first and understand your own unique context.
GK: I think we are getting to one of my final questions—which is why qualitative research like this matters in the skills development conversation?
MO: Skills are not just something that you learn in organized training and practice. There is a whole context that influences how we move. Let’s look at the most basic example: if you stand on an escalator coming up from the underground in Stockholm, everyone stands on the right. If you're in London, everyone stands on the left. The context influences how people behave and move. I think this paper highlights the importance of how skills can be partly formed and shaped by the social-cultural context.
VB: And also within the different regions of any country, players see the game differently. There are predispositions for how players from Helsinki play versus how players from the north play, and the same goes for Russia. To be an effective coach/teacher/pedagogue, you need to know and understand these things in order to develop a sports ecosystem. The club or the federation should take into account what's happening around us in the environment where we live.
MO: Anyone working with young athletes needs to understand that they are complex adaptive systems, meaning they have an inherent and fantastic ability to learn, to adapt. Unfortunately, the dominant approach for many years has been to treat humans like mechanical systems, where we break the parts or technique up into little bits, and then if we put it all together, it will work perfectly. That's fine for machines, but it's not really how humans work. You can't reduce humans to separate parts and stick them back together again. I hope we highlight in the paper how kids learn to adapt to different constraints, different situations. A lot of training with children today gives the illusion of professionalism, it looks like it's reducing errors as well—when really, as Pavel alludes to it—the value of errors was quite big.
VB: When Pavel refers back to his coaches and how they treated mistakes, he offered a beautiful quote:
They [coaches] were giving us more opportunities to make our own decisions and play with our own style. They did not break you, did not tell exactly what to do and gave room to improvise in the game. Of course, they guided and helped us in some moments, yet they did it without messing up your painting of the game that was in your head.
They helped the players to improve without breaking their vision.
GK: My final thought is whether or not this paper opened up avenues of potential further research for the two of you?
VB: Both of our research areas strongly resonate and correlate. At the moment, we’re looking at the Soviet Union and what they did right in terms of the results that they had. I was just reading a book by Alexei Mishin, a legendary figure skating coach, who said that the Soviet sports teams had much stronger support from the government and the environment. He could take his athletes to the best choreographers from the Bolshoi Theater, or test their resistance to spinning stress at a laboratory for the space program. I might explore with Mark what other gems are hidden under the language barrier.
MO: I’m really into this idea of meaning and value, particularly for children. We should be creating an environment that allows them to learn together with us, and we need to design more environments in terms of that meaning and value. If you're building new houses or apartment blocks, it should be law to build something for children in the area that they can interact with in their time, when they decide. We don't do these things, and that gets back to Pavel. Just thinking about the interview—the meaning and value they found in the simple conditions they had and their community. I think this is something we've forgotten in our neoliberalist, hyper-structured youth sport. It'd be nice to move toward that.
Vladislav Bespomoshchnov is a Learning and Development Coordinator at Sports Institute of Finland and Lecturer at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. (Twitter)
Pavel Datsyuk: Learning, Development, and Becoming the “Magic Man”
Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2021, 5, 173-183
© 2021 Human Kinetics, Inc.