Evgeni Malkin Would Like a Word With You
An exclusive interview with the Penguins’ enigmatic superstar.
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Photos by Frank Walsh
Evgeni Malkin knew about 10 words in English, and none of them were appearing in Pittsburgh International Airport. As he took off his iPod headphones, the white noise buzzed around him. He was living inside a broken television. Static.
Malkin was 19 years old, 4,500 miles away from home and, theoretically, a missing person. Back in Magnitogorsk, Russia, his face was plastered on the proverbial milk carton. He had been pressured by officials of his hometown team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League to sign a contract extension despite being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous year. They played to his heartstrings: family, friends, country. His passport had been confiscated. He was a hockey hostage. Then, one night, the Penguins got a call from Malkin’s agent. The falcon had left the nest.
Websites were rampant with speculation on the whereabouts of a lost national treasure, but Malkin’s dramatic departure was that of a simpler time. He fled throwback style, into the wind. There were no Facebook updates. No phone calls. His childhood friends did not know where he was. He had left his Russian teammates not with a hug, but with a bathroom break.
Two weeks earlier at an airport in Finland, where Metallurg Magnitagorsk was playing in a preseason tournament, Malkin grabbed his hockey-gear bag and a small bag of clothes and disappeared into the night. Malkin was not defecting. He didn’t flee for Coca-Cola and MTV. In Russia, he was already a millionaire and a hero. This wasn’t about green. Or red, white and blue. This was about black and gold.
“I was not scared to come to America,” Malkin remembers. “I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.”
After hiding out in a Finnish apartment for a few days, Malkin secured a fast-tracked Visa and boarded a plane to the United States. He didn’t smile until he felt the engines tremble. No one stopped the plane. The easy part was over.
Boss Wants to See You
The stillness. That’s what bleary-eyed expats remember when they first arrive in a strange land. The radio chatter in the car transporting Malkin through the winding green aisles of the highway became a sea breeze, a nothing. The jetlag became delirium. Trees and trees and trees and a warm bed. After a while the snaking road was swallowed up by a giant tube. Pale, blinking strobes and Soviet gray walls. And then it happened. Everyone remembers their first time. Malkin’s eyes flicker when he remembers his.
“The lights,” Malkin smiles. “Wow.” They appeared small at first, gold and silver flecks at the end of a kaleidoscope. Then, as the tunnel yawned wider and wider and the car raced through its mouth, the Pittsburgh skyline exploded. Towers levitating on the shoulders of endless bridges. A ghost of the city reflecting in the waters below. “I never been so surprised when I see all the lights,” Malkin says. “So many lights! And the bridges, the most I have ever seen. Downtown looked so amazing. Not bad place to be for a new home, I think.”
In the car, the translator assigned to help Malkin had some news. He spoke in Russian, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Mandarin. This was a universal language. After five planes, a safe-house, 4,500 miles and three continents, a warm bed would have to wait. And Malkin couldn’t have been happier about it. “He tell me we’re going to Mario Lemieux’s house for dinner,” Malkin says. “It was so surprising for me—I come first day, and Mario meet me.”
The car drove through the ornate gate of Lemieux’s sprawling Wayne Manor estate. At the top of the winding drive, a silhouette stood in the electric gold of the doorway. Then another appeared. And another.
“Mario’s whole family was there and Crosby, too, and Gonchar, too—all there waiting for me,” Malkin says. “I’m not speaking English, but I’m so excited. Gonch translated for me, and Mario said, ‘Welcome, we’re glad you made it.’”
Malkin’s new boss fired up the grill and emerged from his fabled wine cellar with a few bottles for the special occasion. “I remember we eat steaks and drink good wine,” Malkin laughs. “Very big house. Very good family.”
Gonchar remembers the night fondly. “Mario is a person who does everything in a first-class way,” he says. “Everyone left the house with a warm feeling. What Evgeni went through to get to the United States was not easy for him. I believe it really helped him to see that he was welcome and that people were waiting for him.”
“Big surprise for me,” Malkin beams. “Mario, I love this guy. He’s my hero.”
Next: Malkin in the Middle