One on one with the Penguins’ enigmatic superstar.
By Sean Conboy
Evgeni Malkin knew about 10 words in English, and none of them were appearing in Pittsburgh International Airport. As he took off his iPod headphones, the white noise buzzed around him. He was living inside a broken television. Static.
Malkin was 19 years old, 4,500 miles away from home and, theoretically, a missing person. Back in Magnitogorsk, Russia, his face was plastered on the proverbial milk carton. He had been pressured by officials of his hometown team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League to sign a contract extension despite being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous year. They played to his heartstrings: family, friends, country. His passport had been confiscated. He was a hockey hostage. Then, one night, the Penguins got a call from Malkin’s agent. The falcon had left the nest.
Websites were rampant with speculation on the whereabouts of a lost national treasure, but Malkin’s dramatic departure was that of a simpler time. He fled throwback style, into the wind. There were no Facebook updates. No phone calls. His childhood friends did not know where he was. He had left his Russian teammates not with a hug, but with a bathroom break.
Two weeks earlier at an airport in Finland, where Metallurg Magnitagorsk was playing in a preseason tournament, Malkin grabbed his hockey-gear bag and a small bag of clothes and disappeared into the night. Malkin was not defecting. He didn’t flee for Coca-Cola and MTV. In Russia, he was already a millionaire and a hero. This wasn’t about green. Or red, white and blue. This was about black and gold.
“I was not scared to come to America,” Malkin remembers. “I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.”
After hiding out in a Finnish apartment for a few days, Malkin secured a fast-tracked Visa and boarded a plane to the United States. He didn’t smile until he felt the engines tremble. No one stopped the plane. The easy part was over.
Boss Wants to See You
The stillness. That’s what bleary-eyed expats remember when they first arrive in a strange land. The radio chatter in the car transporting Malkin through the winding green aisles of the highway became a sea breeze, a nothing. The jetlag became delirium. Trees and trees and trees and a warm bed. After a while the snaking road was swallowed up by a giant tube. Pale, blinking strobes and Soviet gray walls. And then it happened. Everyone remembers their first time. Malkin’s eyes flicker when he remembers his.
“The lights,” Malkin smiles. “Wow.” They appeared small at first, gold and silver flecks at the end of a kaleidoscope. Then, as the tunnel yawned wider and wider and the car raced through its mouth, the Pittsburgh skyline exploded. Towers levitating on the shoulders of endless bridges. A ghost of the city reflecting in the waters below. “I never been so surprised when I see all the lights,” Malkin says. “So many lights! And the bridges, the most I have ever seen. Downtown looked so amazing. Not bad place to be for a new home, I think.”
In the car, the translator assigned to help Malkin had some news. He spoke in Russian, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Mandarin. This was a universal language. After five planes, a safe-house, 4,500 miles and three continents, a warm bed would have to wait. And Malkin couldn’t have been happier about it. “He tell me we’re going to Mario Lemieux’s house for dinner,” Malkin says. “It was so surprising for me—I come first day, and Mario meet me.”
The car drove through the ornate gate of Lemieux’s sprawling Wayne Manor estate. At the top of the winding drive, a silhouette stood in the electric gold of the doorway. Then another appeared. And another.
“Mario’s whole family was there and Crosby, too, and Gonchar, too—all there waiting for me,” Malkin says. “I’m not speaking English, but I’m so excited. Gonch translated for me, and Mario said, ‘Welcome, we’re glad you made it.’”
Malkin’s new boss fired up the grill and emerged from his fabled wine cellar with a few bottles for the special occasion. “I remember we eat steaks and drink good wine,” Malkin laughs. “Very big house. Very good family.”
Gonchar remembers the night fondly. “Mario is a person who does everything in a first-class way,” he says. “Everyone left the house with a warm feeling. What Evgeni went through to get to the United States was not easy for him. I believe it really helped him to see that he was welcome and that people were waiting for him.”
“Big surprise for me,” Malkin beams. “Mario, I love this guy. He’s my hero.”
Malkin in the Middle
Malkin soon became a hero to someone else when he moved into a spare bedroom in Gonchar’s house. Gonchar’s 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, became Malkin’s unlikely study buddy and fellow couch potato. The two became fast friends over cartoons. “I love kids, you know,” Malkin says. “She young—2 years old—I play with her sometimes. We watch TV, and she learn English, and I start, too. She’s funny. She learned a little bit quicker than me.”
“Geno was great with my daughter,” Gonchar recalls. “She was teaching him English. Once in a while, she would make fun of him for not knowing something she knew.”
But because Malkin instantly dominated on the ice in his first year with the Penguins, winning NHL Rookie of the Year honors and helping lead the team to its first playoff appearance in five years, most people didn’t realize how difficult it was for him to adjust to life outside the rink.
“At first, I don’t have car, so Gonch have to drive me everywhere,” Malkin says. “He have to speak for me, translate. It was tough. I come back from practice and stay all day in house, talking to Russian friends on Skype or watching movies.”
Luckily, despite the language barrier, Malkin found solace in the locker room and quickly bonded with his teammates.
“I am lucky I met Fleury, Sid, Staalsy—you know, good guys,”
Malkin says. “Sid always helped me. We talk a lot on the phone, and when I go to Russia, he’s always texting me.”
Special praise was reserved for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whom Malkin calls the heart of the locker room.
“Fleury, he’s a funny French guy. He has lots of jokes for guys. Always smiling after a good save. We have a shootout after practice, and when he makes great save, he talks to guys—you know, ‘I best, I best!’”
Geno pauses, laughing without sound, then deadpans, “He’s best.”
Still, there were obstacles. Namely, alarm clocks.
“Evgeni hated to wake up early in the morning,” Gonchar recalls. “For such a young kid, the NHL can be a grind. Sometimes, he’d sleep through it. I had to go in and wake him up more than once, for sure.”
Just like every youth hockey player from Magnitogorsk to the Mon Valley, the Penguins’ young megastar faced that brutally familiar wake-up call. Outside the walls of his warm comforter was the piercing winter air and sleepy drive to practice. The frozen meat locker of Mellon Arena awaited. Shrill whistles. The crackle of ice underfoot. Bag skates, brutality, laughter. That unique mix of excitement and dread they call hockey practice.
Geno, let’s go. It’s time for hockey.
Here’s Geno now in the plush players’ lounge of the CONSOL Energy Center. He’s got a Stanley Cup and a playoff MVP trophy—and the scars to prove it, including an enormous one on his right knee from ACL surgery last season. It’s a long way from the static of Pittsburgh International Airport. The winding green aisles have become familiar, the highways well traveled (“I have navigation, never lost,” Malkin says. “Only one time when visiting the kids in hospital I lost my way.”) Mario’s house is now “Mario’s house,” and Geno’s got a house of his own with a yard and a cat named Dixi. The Mellon Arena’s sparse corridors have been replaced by CONSOL’s carpeted rec rooms, bubble hockey tables and espresso machines.
Much has changed in a few years. The static cloud that once hung above Geno’s head has lifted. He’s talking in English, laughing as he recounts a now infamous story featured in HBO’s “24/7” documentary. Somehow, it’s funnier when Geno tells it—pausing every once in a while to Google-search a word in his mind and emphasizing minor points with giggles like a middle-schooler rhapsodizing a lunch table full of preteens with a tall tale.
“One time I see Flower and Johnny, two goalies, do re-around ... re-arrange of Lovejoy and Letetsu’s room. TV, beds, everything. Out! Put new room around elevator. Hotel people very confused. Very funny joke.”
This is the Geno who’s sometimes hard to see. On camera, he’s shy and intensely earnest. In person, he’s the best kind of adult: a big kid.
“One thing people might not see is how funny he is behind the scenes,” Gonchar says. “He doesn’t say much, but all of a sudden he’ll come from out of nowhere with a joke that cracks everyone up. One thing I’ll always remember about Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was Geno making fun of Max Talbot for missing the empty net after Max just won us the Cup with two goals.”
On Twitter, which Malkin joined at the start of the season, he responded to an earth-shattering nutritional discovery by asking for verification from his 79,000 followers: “Just read that tomato = fruit? True???”
And when a conversation with Phoenix Coyotes tough-guy Paul Bisonnette, nicknamed Biz Nasty, ended with Bisonnette jokingly telling Malkin he would see him at the All-Star Game, Malkin retorted, in flawless broken English, “Sorry Nasty, you play in rookie game,” then added the follow-up disclaimer: “Russian humor.”
And don’t get Malkin started on the Steelers. He’s a convert, a full-fledged Cope-a-Nut. “I don’t understand all the rules, but I love this game,” he says. “My favorites now are Mike Wallace and Troy Polamalu. I think he’s the best defenseman.”
After Polamalu returned a fumble for a game-breaking touchdown against the Colts early this season, Malkin feverishly sent a tweet to the Flyin’ Hawaiian: “You best!!!!”
Malkin’s comedic stylings may invoke Balky from “Perfect Strangers” or perhaps Steve Martin’s “Saturday Night Live” wild-and-crazy-guys schtick, and maybe the caricature isn’t lost on Geno himself. After all, his Halloween costume this year involved a spread-collar silk shirt, a plume of fake chest hair and an absurdly bushy Doobie Brothers mustache.
Malkin’s hilarious, hirsute costume is a kind of living metaphor for the view many hockey fans have of the mercurial star, and that caricature misses the point entirely. Because underneath the goofy exterior is a man whose bravery is unmatched and whose loyalty to Lemieux and the Penguins organization is limitless. If Malkin has a fault, it’s that he cares too much.
Smiling Like a Butcher’s Dog
Those closest to Geno are happy to see him grinning again. After missing half of last season with a torn ACL and MCL (following a disappointing 2010 campaign), Malkin was devastated.
“First time I didn’t play in playoffs,” he says. “It was hard on me. Sid couldn’t play, I couldn’t play. I talked with Sid, we stay with team always and watch team together.” During a pivotal Game 4 against Tampa Bay, the tension of the moment spilled over when the game went to overtime and snake-bitten sniper James Neal dramatically broke his scoring drought.
“Most times Sid and I watched quiet,” Malkin says. “Of course, when Nealsy scored in overtime we jump around and celebrate.”
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay would fight back to win the series as Malkin watched helplessly from behind the scenes. It’s easy to tell that the early exit still bothers Malkin, who was planning to attempt a gutsy comeback if the Penguins made it to the next round. Those who believe the stereotype that foreign players don’t care as much about the Stanley Cup would do well to spend five minutes with Malkin.
“I want to win more Stanley Cups, not just one,” he says. “Because I read newspaper and sometimes people say if you win one Stanley Cup, you’re lucky. They say maybe we won Game 7 against Detroit because we’re lucky. I need to win again. Second time, more important.”
Gonchar, whose Moscow apartment is on the same floor as Malkin’s, and who trains with him every summer, sees the fire, too. “He’s maturing and feeling a lot more responsibility for the team,” Gonchar says. “This summer, he never missed a workout. You can see he’s really got his mind into it now.”
It’s almost unfathomable to think that Malkin, just 25, has won every major trophy in the NHL, except one: the Hart Memorial Trophy for regular season MVP. But can he regain the goal-scoring form that won him the Art Ross trophy as the league’s scoring champion in 2009? It’s a point of pride for the Penguins organization, which has claimed the trophy a preposterous 13 times in the past 23 seasons.
“Maybe this year I win,” Malkin says sheepishly, looking down and shaking his head. “But if Crosby play, I can’t win. Sid always win.”
There’s the laughter again. Geno disappears into the weight room for more punishment but turns back with a final request.
“Tell fans thank you for supporting Penguins and Steelers,” he says. “And sorry for my English.”
Geno’s come full circle. He’s Pittsburgh through and through. He’s caring to a fault. His gruffness is his charm. He bleeds for the things he loves.
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine
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