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 Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

19 Pittsburgh-Area Burgers That We Love

19 Pittsburgh-Area Burgers That We Love

PM dining critic Hal B. Klein spent months eating scores of hamburgers in and around Pittsburgh. Find out how he narrowed his list down to 19 — and see which ones made the cut.
Meet 3 Butchers of the 'Burgh and Pittsburgh's ‘Brisket Boss’

Meet 3 Butchers of the 'Burgh and Pittsburgh's ‘Brisket Boss’

We visit Salem's halal butcher shop, the butchery program at Whitfield restaurant and the Butcher on Butler. Plus, smoking tips from the Brisket Boss.
The Region's Top Dentists 2017

The Region's Top Dentists 2017

Our annual list, which contains 369 dentists in the region, as determined by topDENTISTS.
Showtime Brothers: A Tale of Two Hollanders

Showtime Brothers: A Tale of Two Hollanders

In the 13 years since CBS’ ‘The Guardian’ went off the air, the Mt. Lebanon-raised siblings who inspired and wrote the series, Scott and David Hollander, have continued to export Pittsburgh nationally.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


New Pennzoil Ad Shows the Dodge Demon Demolishing the Streets of Pittsburgh

New Pennzoil Ad Shows the Dodge Demon Demolishing the Streets of Pittsburgh

Watch champion drifter Rhys Millen turn Pittsburgh's streets into his own private raceway.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
First Look: Ki Ramen

First Look: Ki Ramen

After a series of successful pop-ups, chefs Domenic Branduzzi and Roger Li open their Lawrenceville ramen shop.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


Tres Rios Has Potential, But Hasn't Distinguished Itself Just Yet

Tres Rios Has Potential, But Hasn't Distinguished Itself Just Yet

The tacos-and-tequila bar and restaurant on the South Side doesn't do anything wrong, exactly, but has room to grow.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Who Belongs on a Pittsburgh Steelers Mount Rushmore?

Who Belongs on a Pittsburgh Steelers Mount Rushmore?

As the team prepares the inaugural class of its Hall of Honor, Mike Prisuta selects the four members of the Steelers family most deserving of inclusion.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make a Trendy Transition into Fall Style

Make a Trendy Transition into Fall Style

No. 14 Boutique in Lawrenceville put together this chic outfit for the tricky period when summer cools into autumn.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The Glass Castle Isn't Perfect, But It's Better Than a Creepy Doll

The Glass Castle Isn't Perfect, But It's Better Than a Creepy Doll

Reviews of "The Glass Castle" and "Annabelle: Creation," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Delicious Design: Our Cookie Table Contest Winner & Runners-Up

Delicious Design: Our Cookie Table Contest Winner & Runners-Up

These Pittsburgh couples certainly know how to bring the cookie table tradition to life.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Produced in Pittsburgh: MONMade Takes Local Crafters National

Produced in Pittsburgh: MONMade Takes Local Crafters National

Close to a half dozen local businesses, among them Savannah Hayes and Stak Ceramics, will make their debut next week at the mega interior design and home goods-focused show in New York City.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

School trustees voted this week to increase tuition for in-state and out-of-state students.

Comments

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags