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.”
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.”
In Russia, Malkin will face Crosby-like pressure to perform.
“I know there’s pressure,” Malkin said, “but it’s good pressure because we have a great team and we have the chance to win. I’m not into newspapers and I [don’t] read the Internet at all. I just focus on my game and enjoy my partners, enjoy the team.”
“It’s his home country and they want to bring home gold on their home ice,” Penguins defenceman Rob Scuderi added. “But he’s not the type of personality to feel the weight of expectation. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.
“There’s always a fine line between playing with desperation and being panicked – and I think for a lot of the guys here, especially for the guys who’ve won, you find a way to toe that line, to play desperately without playing panicked or selfishly. He’ll have to find that within himself.”
Scuderi is in a unique position to evaluate Malkin’s development – on and off the ice – because he was with the Pens when they won the Cup in 2009, then joined the Los Angeles Kings for four years, won another Cup, and is back now playing in Pittsburgh.
“Hockey-wise, he hasn’t changed much,” Scuderi said, “but he has grown a lot in terms of being a bigger presence in the room. … It takes a little while [for foreign players] to come around and everybody understands that – he had to learn a new language and it was a big life change for him when he first came over. It’s nice to see his personality coming out – because he has a good one.”
On the Russian Olympic team, the expectation is Malkin will play on a line with Nikolai Kulemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a former teammate in Magnitogorsk, plus Ovechkin.
Neal didn’t make the Canadian Olympic team, but noted Malkin’s attributes are evident for all to see. “He’s such a big guy and he’s so strong and powerful. He’d be definitely hard to defend. You can’t give him too much space or he’ll make you pay.”
Crosby: The complete player
As a GM, Shero is blessed with having two superstars to rely on. It’s forced him to juggle the Penguins payroll over the years to keep both happy, but neither Crosby nor Malkin has made any extreme contract demands – and so Shero has been able to build a quality supporting cast that year after year challenges for top spot in the Eastern Conference, even though both players have had their injury issues.
“It’s been amazing when one or the other has been out, we’ve been able to play over a .600 clip,” Shero said. “Whenever you have a Malkin or a Crosby, you have a chance to win every night and we’ve been able to take advantage of that.”
Off the ice, Crosby has been the undeniable face of the NHL.
“He’s asked to do a lot and he does do a lot,” Shero said, “whether it’s here with you guys [reporters], or at the hotel beforehand, in the dining room, where we’re having breakfast. I’m at my table and I hear people whispering, ‘That’s Sidney Crosby.’ They’re texting their family and their friends that he’s here. He gets up and he’s very accommodating to people. That’s what he is – a caring kid. … “There’s not a lot hidden there. It’s almost like the old days with Wayne Gretzky. He’s good with people. We’re fortunate as a team because obviously, the requests we have, if we had a more difficult athlete or a less caring athlete, it would be a lot different. Not much push back. It’s very easy for us.”
Four years after scoring the “Golden Goal” for Canada to beat the United States in Vancouver, in a year when he has managed to stay healthy, could Crosby actually be getting better?
“I think he actually is,” Shero replied. “It’s hard to believe, but true. When he first got hurt at the  Winter Classic, I think he was playing his best hockey, and now that he’s come back, you see the gains he’s made in his all-around game. I get asked all the time: ‘Is he the best?’ “Let’s be honest. There are a lot of good players, but Sidney to us is a 200-foot player, who takes pride in his defensive game. He’s a go-to guy on faceoffs. He chips in on the penalty kill and he’s somewhat relied upon in offensive situations.”
Shero paused to see whether the gag hit the mark: Yes, the Penguins do somewhat rely on Crosby offensively.
“But you know what? He’s 25 and his game is growing,” the GM continued. “You get to see the highlights of him here and there, but I get to see him in game situations and in practises every day and it’s pretty amazing to watch.”
Crosby is indeed in the midst of another fine season. At the halfway point, he was the NHL’s leading scorer, just as he was the runaway scoring leader last year, before he broke his jaw in a freak injury and was unable to play in the final month of the regular season. Over the past three years, Crosby has missed more games (113) than he played (99) and thus takes nothing for granted in terms of his health.
“It was just important for me to play a full season,” he said, “because it’s been a while. With the lockout, I missed a lot of games and then with the broken jaw, I missed some time there. Then, obviously, with it being an Olympic year, my goals and my focus were on making sure I was consistent and making sure I was ready come the Olympics, too.”
The Olympics: An intense rivalry
Canada and Russia, of course, are not the only nations with their sights set on hockey gold in Sochi: The United States, Sweden and Finland are also contenders.
But the Canada-Russia rivalry remains intense, and on the Russian side Malkin is “the top guy,” Penguins linemate Neal said. “Being able to play with him every day and play on a line with him is special. His ability to score goals and to distribute the puck – his playmaking abilities – are the best in the world. He’s a special player and a special guy.”
Malkin described the one-sided loss to Canada in 2010 as water under the bridge, noting: “Yeah, of course it’s a big loss for us, a big loss for the country. It’s great motivation for Sochi, but it’s all hockey. We lost one game. Of course, it’s bad, but it’s Canada. They did a great job, they play at home, they beat us, it’s a good game.
“It’s hockey. Sometimes, you lose. Sometimes, you win. … I try not to think about [the possibility of losing in Sochi]. I know it’s Russia. The country loves hockey. It’s a big deal for us, a big deal for the whole people of Russia. You just try to a show a good game and show 100-per-cent work and work together.”
Crosby will bear his own burden as captain of the talent-laden Canadian squad, of whom much is expected as well. But he has thoughts about Malkin – and expects him to excel.
“If I know him the way I think I do, he always raises his level at key moments,” Crosby said, “so I would expect him to be at his best. The fact that both he and Ovechkin can kind of share that pressure is probably a good thing for both of them. But there are a lot of good players on that team. … “It’s tough for one guy to feel that entire pressure, but that being said, yeah, that [pressure] is going to be something they have to deal with the way we did as Canadians in Vancouver.”
With a report from David Ebner in Vancouver
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