Evgeni Malkin Would Like a Word With You
An exclusive interview with the Penguins’ enigmatic superstar.
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"First guy I became friends with probably Max Talbot. We room together. He speak French, I speak Russian. But we watch movies."
Malkin in the Middle
Malkin soon became a hero to someone else when he moved into a spare bedroom in Gonchar’s house. Gonchar’s 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, became Malkin’s unlikely study buddy and fellow couch potato. The two became fast friends over cartoons. “I love kids, you know,” Malkin says. “She young—2 years old—I play with her sometimes. We watch TV, and she learn English, and I start, too. She’s funny. She learned a little bit quicker than me.”
“Geno was great with my daughter,” Gonchar recalls. “She was teaching him English. Once in a while, she would make fun of him for not knowing something she knew.”
But because Malkin instantly dominated on the ice in his first year with the Penguins, winning NHL Rookie of the Year honors and helping lead the team to its first playoff appearance in five years, most people didn’t realize how difficult it was for him to adjust to life outside the rink.
“At first, I don’t have car, so Gonch have to drive me everywhere,” Malkin says. “He have to speak for me, translate. It was tough. I come back from practice and stay all day in house, talking to Russian friends on Skype or watching movies.”
Luckily, despite the language barrier, Malkin found solace in the locker room and quickly bonded with his teammates.
“I am lucky I met Fleury, Sid, Staalsy—you know, good guys,”
Malkin says. “Sid always helped me. We talk a lot on the phone, and when I go to Russia, he’s always texting me.”
Special praise was reserved for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whom Malkin calls the heart of the locker room.
“Fleury, he’s a funny French guy. He has lots of jokes for guys. Always smiling after a good save. We have a shootout after practice, and when he makes great save, he talks to guys—you know, ‘I best, I best!’”
Geno pauses, laughing without sound, then deadpans, “He’s best.”
Still, there were obstacles. Namely, alarm clocks.
“Evgeni hated to wake up early in the morning,” Gonchar recalls. “For such a young kid, the NHL can be a grind. Sometimes, he’d sleep through it. I had to go in and wake him up more than once, for sure.”
Just like every youth hockey player from Magnitogorsk to the Mon Valley, the Penguins’ young megastar faced that brutally familiar wake-up call. Outside the walls of his warm comforter was the piercing winter air and sleepy drive to practice. The frozen meat locker of Mellon Arena awaited. Shrill whistles. The crackle of ice underfoot. Bag skates, brutality, laughter. That unique mix of excitement and dread they call hockey practice.
Geno, let’s go. It’s time for hockey.
Next: Russian humor