Malkin’s best friend on the Penguins is Canadian-born goal-scorer James Neal, who said: “Sid, obviously, takes the brunt of the spotlight and Gino kind of flies under the radar and does his thing, but I don’t think he flies under the radar [in terms of] how skilled he is or how good a player he is. I think everybody treats him just as equally as Sid.”
Malkin: The quiet Russian
Evgeni Malkin was drafted second overall in 2004, just behind Ovechkin.
But he stayed an extra year in Russia to play for his hometown team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, where he first came into contact with an English-speaking coach, Dave King, the three-time bench boss of Canada’s men’s Olympic team.
It gave Malkin a glimpse of what life would be like in the NHL, but even so, Magnitogorsk didn’t want to let him leave even the following season; it had taken away his passport, and he couldn’t slip away to the NHL until the team was in Finland, playing an exhibition game. Magnitogorsk sued in U.S. court to get him back, but the case was eventually dropped.
Whatever lingering hard feelings there might have been were healed when Malkin returned to play in Russia during the NHL player lockout last year. This time, he played for Paul Maurice, the current Winnipeg Jets coach, who says he gave Malkin “a lot of credit” for returning to his hometown team rather than going to one of Russia’s glitzier urban centres such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
That half-season in Russia, a time when facilities were being constructed in Sochi and Olympic chatter was rampant, gave Malkin a close-hand sense of what the Winter Games mean to his countrymen.
“I’m sure it was beneficial for him to play over there during the lockout – and seeing a lot of the passion and the pressure to perform,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “But I think the scouting report you’re getting on him from our players is absolutely accurate. He’s a fun-loving guy, but more or less keeps that in the room with his teammates. Anybody who’s ever played with us can tell you he’s a really smart kid. … [The Olympics will] be a great challenge for him. There’ll be a lot of pressure on him, playing on his home turf.”
Malkin’s departure from Russia had a sort of cloak-and-dagger, last-remnants-of-the-Cold-War cast to it.
When he arrived, he had fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar in the dressing room to help smooth the transition. The Penguins understood the value of not leaving Malkin isolated in his first couple of years, going back two decades, when Jaromir Jagr arrived from the former Czechoslovakia and was having a difficult time adjusting. The Penguins traded for Jiri Hrdina, a former Czech league star, and Hrdina helped Jagr learn the language and otherwise adjust to the vastly different culture.
It was like that for Malkin, too: He had played with Gonchar during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and they had a familiarity and a friendship.
“When he first came in,” Pens goaltender Marc-André Fleury said, “he didn’t speak any English, and went to Sergei Gonchar’s house – and that was good for him when he started out with the team, to have a good veteran and family to live with. When Gonch left [after the 2009-10 season], I think that’s when he spoke a little more English and spoke a little more in the room.
“He’s a funny guy. He’s always joking around. On the ice, he’s fun to practice with, he always yells at you when he scores. It just makes it fun.”
Malkin is currently the only Russian-born player on the NHL team.
He received word he would be on his nation’s Olympic team roster during the team’s January stop in Vancouver – where, during the 2010 Games, the Russians had fallen 7-3 to Canada in the quarter-finals. In Malkin’s first Olympics, 2006, he was part of the Russian team that knocked out Canada 2-0 in the quarters, but then lost in the semi-finals and lost again in the bronze-medal game to the Czech Republic.
Of playing in the Olympics at home this year, Malkin said: “I think it’s going to be fun. Because I play Vancouver and Torino two times already and never win medals, I’m excited to come home. I know lots of guys and my friends come. You know, we have a great and good chance to win. Of course, I’m just trying not to think too much about medals or about my game. Right now, I play here and I try to be stronger and more physical and then go to Sochi.”