Evgeni Malkin Wants His Cup Back

Geno's MVP-caliber season was fueled by a trying off-season.


Photo by Dave DiCello, HDR Exposed Photography

Evgeni Malkin was beside himself. Genuinely, beside himself. He was staring off into the middle distance, right above the placard hanging on the wall in the Penguins’ players lounge that displayed the Eastern Conference standings (the season hadn’t even begun, but someone had moved Washington to last place, right behind Philadelphia).

This was in October, on the eve of the season opener, and the purple scar on Malkin’s knee was still sore from the double-whammy of ACL and MCL surgery. As he sat in the chair answering my dumb questions, he kept flexing his leg. Answering in English, he exuded his trademark mixture of vague discomfort and wild-eyed excitement. He was really, really excited about the start of the 2011-2012 season, so much so that when he talked about Sidney Crosby coming back he literally would lose his breath. The mention of the talent in the locker room triggered a stream of consciousness explosion that sounded like, “Sid-best-Flower-best-Staalsy-hard-to-play-Nealsy-guys-score-guys-play-hard-Duper.”

Then I asked an innocuous question about his 2010-2011 season being derailed by injury, and suddenly he couldn’t find the words. He looked off into the distance and shook his head. Even in the midst of disappointing seasons, most athletes are on auto-pilot. They are somber in a completely reasonable, media-savvy way. Crosby is a master at this game. Not Malkin. He looked like he was ready to run out onto Fifth Avenue to challenge anyone in sight to an impromptu street hockey game.

I’ll never forget this moment. It had been an unbelievably trying off-season for Malkin. He had just lost close friends Igor Korolev and Gennady Churilov in the KHL air disaster, and it was clear that his heart was still back home. “I wish I could be in Russia at this moment,” he said. “I have to watch everything on TV and see how hard it is for the families.” When he wasn’t on the ice, he was rehabbing his knee and coordinating fundraisers to benefit the bereaved families back in Russia.

It would have been completely understandable if his mind was somewhere else at that moment, and yet there in the players lounge, he was verbally paralyzed with frustration. He was thinking about his adopted home and the people he felt he let down with a disappointing season. Despite hoisting the Art Ross, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in 2009, Malkin clearly still felt that he owed Pittsburgh something more.

“I not have good year,” he finally said. “First time I not play in playoffs. It was a tough moment. I feel like I can play but my knee not ready.”

There are some bizarrely dressed, weird-bearded people in NHL circles who will always question the passion and commitment of Russian-born players. Malkin has had to deal with this sentiment his entire career, and even after he became the first Russian-born player to win playoff MVP, some in the media jumped on two injury-plagued seasons as a sign of weakness. Malkin was well aware of that growing chorus.

“I read newspapers and sometimes people say if you win one Stanley Cup, you’re lucky,” he said. “They say maybe we get lucky in Game 7 against Detroit, so I want to win again. You win second time, it’s more important.”

I’ve had the great fortune of covering the Penguins for two years now, and people tend to ask me the same curious question about the players I interview.

Is he cool?

Which, if you think about it, is a strange thing to ask about a person who is paid millions of dollars to shoot a puck. I mean, if sports is just pure escapism (a popular claim of the anti-sports crowd) then why does it even matter if an athlete is ‘cool’ or not?

I think it’s because hockey, to the fans who truly love it, is about much more than mindless escapism. Penguins fans fully invest their hearts in the team because they feel like the players, even the ones who come from the other side of the earth, truly and honestly care about the people watching them on the other side of the glass.

In a sportscape littered with numbnuts, used car salesmen, bulbus human sacks of recruiting violations, compulsive contract-wafflers, unabashed bad persons and the shin-kicking carnival barkers who cover them, hockey is the one last bastion untouched by the greasy hands of ESPN and the gravitational pull of the sports troll-o-sphere’s black hole.

I do not know if Evgeni Malkin is ‘cool.’ But I do know that he really, really cares. And that’s what hockey fans really want to know. That’s what’s more important than Stanley Cups and scoring titles. That’s why, tonight, when the Penguins and Flyers line up for the national anthem, when the house lights go down and the electric quiet fills the air, hockey fans will open their hearts in a way that fans of other sports can’t fully comprehend.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

We scoured the region to bring you 53 items we’ve deemed this year’s “Best of the ’Burgh,” as well as 8 stellar local Instagram accounts you don’t want to miss.
See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

After writing for seven years about the city for Pittsburgh Magazine and pittsburghmagazine.com, Virginia Montanez is discontinuing her blog and column.
Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

The restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty hits some high notes as it finds itself.
Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

During her final season of professional basketball, Cash remains ferocious on the court and selfless everywhere else.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Ready for 90-degree temperature weather? What you need to know about summer 2016.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino of Cure and Morcilla organized the event, which featured celebrated chefs from DC, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

Grab your kits, scarfs and get ready to watch the Euro 2016 Pittsburgh-style. We'll show you where to go to get your fan on.

Comments


Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

The restaurant and bar in Oakland welcomes college students and locals alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Perspective Accompanies Long-Awaited Second Crosby Cup

Perspective Accompanies Long-Awaited Second Crosby Cup

The Pittsburgh Penguins may be more poised to establish a dynasty in 2016 than they were in 2009.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Vintage signs can add a pop of personality to your decor.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Reviews of "The Conjuring 2," "Warcraft," "Maggie's Plan," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

The restoration of the iconic Noah’s Ark whale entrance came just in time to be the backdrop for this Pittsburgh couple’s wedding.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Violet Verbena’s grey-purple tones are playful, elegant and calming. Plus, get the history behind some of Pittsburgh's architectural wonders.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

The camp is a collaboration between two area universities and is open to students entering grades 9-12.

Comments

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags