A day in the life of the Pittsburgh Penguins typically features Sidney Crosby, sitting at his locker stall after practice, answering an unrelenting stream of questions.
There are two separate scrums on this day in Edmonton, the first for TV reporters and their cameramen, who create a familiar phalanx around Crosby, seeking their sound bites. The second is a smaller, more collegial gathering, for the dwindling number of print and radio reporters, and closer to an actual conversation than a formal interview. Crosby is making time for everyone to talk about every little thing – from his role on the 2014 Canadian men’s Olympic team to how he manages his stardom in an increasingly star-struck universe.
As Crosby holds court at Rexall Place, his fellow NHL superstar and soon-to-be Olympic rival, Evgeni Malkin, is stripping off his gear just two locker stalls down, left alone to deal with the basic on-ice demands of the professional hockey player.
Crosby is the primary face and voice of the NHL and the Penguins, and this arrangement suits Malkin perfectly. The Russian star is now in his eighth NHL season and his English, according to his head coach, general manager and teammates, is far better than he lets on. But he is shy about using it in public because it is still a little broken and, frankly, facing the media can be a bothersome thing.
Instead, Malkin prefers to do his talking on the ice, which is where the focus will be when the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, open on Feb. 7. With the NHL undecided about whether to allow its players to participate in any future Olympics, the Sochi Games promise to be a high-stakes hockey showcase, with the Canadians and Russians conspicuous in the potential medal mix. And on those traditional rivals, the Penguins’ two stars will figure prominently and, given the switch in Olympic venues from Vancouver in 2010, face an intriguing role reversal this time around.
For Vancouver, the weight of Canada’s expectations for the men’s hockey tournament fell heavily on Crosby’s shoulders.
Canada was coming off a disappointing result four years earlier in Turin, in part because it left Crosby off the roster, disastrously opting to go with more experienced but far slower players. By the time the Vancouver Games rolled around, Crosby was indisputably Canada’s top player. The hunger to win Olympic gold on home ice in 2010 was so palpable that, when it was over and it went Canada’s way, the victory was still measured in equal parts of elation and relief. Crosby acknowledged he’d never felt such pressure before, not even when he was winning the Stanley Cup with the Pens as a 21-year-old in 2009.
Now, four years later, Russia – which takes its hockey just as seriously as Canada does – is the host nation.
In the four previous tournaments featuring NHL players, the Russians have won two medals – silver in 1998, bronze in 2006. Russia President Vladimir Putin has become a hardcore hockey fan, these are his Games, and this is the medal he – and by extension, his hockey-mad nation – prizes the most.
Unlike Crosby in Canada, the pressure will be spread out more equitably among three Russian players: Alexander Ovechkin, whose rivalry with Crosby when they entered the league in 2005 became a focal point for NHL marketing campaigns; Ilya Kovalchuk, the former New Jersey Devils star who was repatriated to the Russia-based KHL this season amid great fanfare; and Malkin, the only one of the three to have won a Stanley Cup and arguably Russia’s most complete player.
Malkin, 27, has won the NHL scoring title and most valuable player award – and yet, far less is known about him than about Crosby simply because he’s less frequently in front of the cameras.
“There’s always a confidence level when you’re speaking your second or third language,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who will coach the U.S. men’s team in Sochi.
“But [Malkin’s] English is very good – a little bit broken, but there’s no issues with that. He is the most intelligent person in the room,” Bylsma said. “Sometimes, I feel like I have to speed up to keep up. His game can be so dominant. He’s a bull of a player. His skating is probably, not underrated exactly, but the power with which he plays is immense. It probably gets overshadowed a little because of Sidney Crosby.”