Evgeni Malkin: Revealing the NHL’s most mysterious superstar

March 28, 2013, 4:47 PM

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

Evgeni Malkin has the best view in the house. From his familiar perch on the right point, the Penguins’ enigmatic star glances to his left—toward the faceoff circle deep in the Flyers’ zone—as teammate Sidney Crosby wins the draw and kicks the puck directly back to Kris Letang. That’s Malkin’s cue. It’s impossible not to notice No. 71, and it has nothing to do with his imposing six-foot-three, 212-lb. frame; there’s something intrinsic and effortless about the way he moves that separates him from the nine other men on the ice. He takes a powerful stride to the right slot as the most daunting power-play unit in the league forms a cross—Letang up top at the blueline, forward Chris Kunitz parked beside Philly’s goalie and sniper James Neal, flanked by Malkin and Crosby, in the middle.

It’s barely five minutes into the first period, and hockey’s fiercest rivalry is already living up to the billing. The raucous Pens faithful have packed Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center for its league-best 261st consecutive sellout, and judging by the volume, you’d never know it was just a regular-season tilt in late February, No. 17 of 48. Feels more like a game seven. Or a vintage Van Halen concert (the crowd will go on to break the arena’s decibel-level record in the third period, while watching a video of their team’s mascot laying a beat-down on a Rocky Balboa body double atop the Philadelphia courthouse steps).

As Pittsburgh’s power play takes shape, the puck finds its way back to Crosby, who steps forward and releases a pass across the ice onto the waiting stick of Malkin. The crowd takes a collective breath—they’ve seen this unfold enough times to know exactly what’s coming next—and for a brief moment the building is stone silent. Malkin uncorks a short wrister, nastier than the gale-force winds ripping off the Ohio River and across the city outside. It lands squarely in the glove of goalie Brian Boucher, but the sheer power forces his hand into the net. The goal is reviewed and ultimately overturned. Inconclusive evidence is the call. And while Malkin will go on to score two minutes later on yet another power play, that early no-goal will prove costly as the Pens drop the affair 6–5.

At the sound of the final buzzer, the throng of reporters, dozens of ’em, rush down to the dressing room. They swarm Crosby, stick their microphones and lenses in the face of Letang, and descend on the losing goalie, backup Tomas Vokoun. Heads turn looking for Malkin, for any reaction from the big Russian. But his locker stall lies bare; Malkin has left the building.

There are two known truths about the 26-year-old: He’s one of the three most talented hockey players on the planet, and he doesn’t talk. Not to the media, at least. Sure, he’ll do the odd scrum once a month or so, and will field questions from local TV now and again, so long as he receives the questions—and only two—well in advance. For the most part, Malkin is a closed book. Many people assume he barely speaks English, which isn’t true, at least not anymore. And while he’s not the only pro athlete to stay quiet, he’s probably the best. Seven seasons into his career, Malkin has already put together a Hall of Fame resumé: A Calder Trophy, two Stanley Cup appearances, a Conn Smythe, two Art Ross trophies and last season, with Crosby sidelined, a Hart Trophy as the league MVP. The star-strapped NHL would surely love to have a reigning MVP to promote, someone they could put in front of the cameras, plaster on billboards and help grow the game in the United States. But they won’t find that guy in Malkin; he has the talent to convert newbies to diehards, but not the desire to do so. He’s content—no, determined—to let his play do all the talking. Add it all up, the shy demeanour, the guarded public profile, the terse answers in limited interviews, and there’s a tendency to accept what’s presented. It’s easy to think that Malkin is a supremely talented hockey player and not much else. But that would be a mistake. Because, believe it or not, he does have the personality to bring the game to the masses, the work ethic to inspire a generation of young players, and a sense of humour. He’s not an empty locker.

Malkin was a nervous wreck when he arrived in Pittsburgh for his first NHL training camp in the summer of 2006, on the heels of a fly-by-night exodus to escape his Russian contract with his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Expectations couldn’t have been higher for the 2004 second overall pick, considered the best hockey player on Earth not in the NHL. But with a limited working knowledge of English, he kept to himself. “On the first day he was here, he didn’t say a word,” recalls Letang, then a rookie himself. “It took two or three years before he really started talking. Looking back, he was just trying to adapt to the country, let alone a new team.” Early on, Malkin was introduced to George Birman, a kind, soft-spoken man working in the Pens ticket office, physically the polar opposite of the guy his teammates dubbed “Geno.” Birman had emigrated to the United States from Russia in ’91, and he quickly became an integral part of Malkin’s new life, serving as his interpreter and helping with banalities like securing a driver’s licence. “I know what it is to go from there to here, how difficult,” says Birman, his native accent still strong today. “When someone like him comes at such a young age without parents or knowing anybody, it’s hard. So I try to help him as much as I can. But he was lucky enough to have Sergei Gonchar there, too.”

For his first three seasons, Malkin lived with Gonchar and his wife, Xenia. The two had played together in Russia two seasons earlier during the NHL lockout of ’04–05, and Malkin became glued to the veteran defenceman; teammates recall Malkin trailing Gonchar like a puppy waiting for supper during those early years. He also became very close with the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Natalie, and the pair helped each other learn the language, watching cartoons. “He was like a son to them, really,” recalls defenceman Brooks Orpik, Malkin’s roommate during away games, who adds that on the road, Malkin seldom went out, instead Skyping with friends and family back home, watching movies in Russian—mostly comedies—or, more commonly, studying English using Rosetta Stone.

On the ice, of course, the only language that matters is hockey, a dialect in which Malkin was already well-versed. He scored at least one goal in each of his first six NHL games, including two game-winners. That season, he took home the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, while Crosby was named MVP and the Penguins returned to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Conjuring memories of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh’s two young stars rejuvenated a hockey-mad fan base. The big kid from Magnitogorsk was starting to settle in.

A couple years later, Malkin seemed very much at home on the biggest stage of all. Flanked by Gonchar and Max Talbot, he slouched in his seat atop a makeshift stage in the bowels of the now-extinct Mellon Arena. After dropping the first two games of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings, the Pens won the third behind the efforts of that trio—Malkin assisted on Talbot’s opening score (Talbot later sealed the game with an empty-netter in the dying seconds) and Gonchar’s game-winner. Facing a horde of reporters, a sense of calm washed over the third-year star when he was asked about the breakout performance from Talbot. “Max, he plays with lot of emotion,” Malkin offered in broken English as a smile crept across his face. “But bad hands; he have lots of scoring chance, no score. Just empty net.” Like a seasoned Catskill comedian, Malkin waited until the laughs died down, then paused and said: “It’s OK, he’ll learn in summer.” The room exploded; You would have thought George Carlin had returned from the dead. Three games later, the Pens captured their first Cup in nearly two decades behind Malkin’s eight points. He was named Conn Smythe winner—at 22, the second-youngest player ever to earn the distinction.

Funny what a championship can do for you. That summer, Malkin moved out of Gonchar’s house and bought one for himself in Pittsburgh, where he was quickly becoming a fan favourite, one of the city’s most recognizable athletes alongside Crosby and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. And while still gun-shy when it came to the media, he opened himself up to the city’s fan base, happy to stop for quick banter and an autograph. His parents, Vladimir and Natalia, have also become local celebrities—“like rock stars,” as Birman puts it—whenever they are in town, usually around playoff time (Vladimir maintains that his son plays better when they are in attendance). They get stopped for autographs, almost as often as Malkin, and it’s become a tradition that whenever their son scores a goal, the big screen over centre ice cuts to his father, a former Magnitogorsk player himself, who plants a big kiss on Mrs. Malkin while the crowd erupts in approval.

It’s easy to see why Malkin has embraced the city as his second home. Like Pittsburgh, Magnitogorsk was founded on an iron and steel industry that shaped the city’s workmanlike character. Growing up, Malkin’s life was “99.9 percent hockey,” according to Birman, and as much as his mother hated the notion of her youngest son moving across the globe, his talent was undeniable early on. “I still remember how serious his approach to each training session was,” says Malkin’s childhood friend–turned–longtime training partner–turned current roommate Max Ivanov, who runs a hockey camp in Pittsburgh. “He worked hard, was a smart player on the ice. Even then, we all knew he would be the best hockey player in the world.” They weren’t far off. This season, before running into injury problems, Malkin had picked up from where he left off in 2011–12, recording 21 points (17 of them assists) in the first 18 games.

When Gonchar signed with Ottawa in the summer of 2010, it forced Malkin even further out of his shell. “I love Gonch and I was disappointed when he left, but in terms of Geno’s development, I think it was the best thing for him,” Orpik says. “It was almost like a crutch. He’s matured—but in some ways he’s just as immature as he’s always been.”

The playful ribbing has become a staple for Malkin, who recently earned a new nickname, “The Bully.” “Because he can mess with everyone else, but as soon as you mess with him, it’s offside. And he hates the name,” laughs Orpik. He obviously has a better handle on what the people around him are saying. “He speaks English really well now,” says Orpik. “I think he plays it off with the media that he doesn’t speak as well as he does just so he can avoid interviews. When it comes to that stuff, he’s a pretty private guy. It’s how he was raised. And obviously he loves having Sid here because Sid is so good with the media. If [Malkin] went somewhere where he was ‘The Guy,’ I don’t think he would enjoy it very much.”

Crosby has noticed the changes in his teammate as well. “It feels like we grew up together here,” Crosby says shortly after the 6–5 loss, gazing at the empty stall with Malkin’s name and number etched in teak. “And you can tell he’s just more comfortable now. He’s taken a lot more responsibility in terms of leadership on the team and he knows it, and shows it.” He’s still reserved and will usually opt to go home after a game to break down that night’s action with Ivanov. Malkin received a massive chess set for his birthday last year and you’ll often find him huddled over the board across from Ivanov in their basement, where a signed Troy Polamalu jersey hangs on the wall.

As long as he keeps producing, most fans in Pittsburgh couldn’t care less about Malkin’s aversion to the spotlight, which other stars of his calibre are subject to. And what are the fans missing, really? Listen to the typical athlete interviews, the pre-game Q-and-A session or post-game scrum, and you won’t find a meaningful quote in the bunch. They’re emptier than Geno’s locker after a game.

Looking back, Malkin’s role on the Penguins, his role in the league, was captured perfectly from the beginning, in the car commercial filmed after his rookie year, which has since been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. You remember it, but likely more for Max Talbot’s “acting” than Malkin’s performance. The premise is simple: Forward Colby Armstrong shows up at a local dealership to pick up a new BMW when he runs into Talbot. The two engage in the most uncomfortable on-screen exchange since Jersey Girl before a voice is heard in the distance. The camera zooms out to reveal Gonchar, standing beside Malkin, who looks like a deer frozen in the headlights of the two shiny, new luxury cars behind him. What you likely don’t know is that Malkin was never supposed to be in the spot, according to Alex de Francisco, who owns the dealership and still remembers that shoot vividly. He was following Gonchar around that day, like always, and when he was asked if he wanted to be a part of the shoot he agreed—so long as he didn’t have to deliver any lines. Gonchar finishes up his brief monologue and turns to his friend. “Geno, catch!” he says, tossing a pair of rattling keys into his friend’s gifted hands. Malkin doesn’t have to speak. He has the keys, and that’s all that matters.

Dave Zarum is an assistant editor at Sportsnet magazine

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