The early years in Russia
Evgeni Malkin was not born surrounded by hockey trophies. His is a story of humble beginnings, family and friendship, betrayal, perseverance, adaptation, and, success and redemption.
It begins in Magnitogorsk, Russia, his beloved hometown. An industrial town in the Ural Mountains, Magnitogorsk is where Evgeni learned the value of hard work and determination. After all, one does not go from Magnitogorsk to the top of the hockey world without having earned it. Hockey was in Evgeni’s blood. His father, Vladimir, played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Both of Vladimir Malkin’s sons took to the sport their father loves. Evgeni’s older brother, Denis, was also in the Metallurg Magnitogorsk hockey system.
Natalia Malkin never wanted her sons to play hockey. She knew it could take them away from home and the close-knit Malkin family. However, she could not ignore Evgeni’s talent from even a young age.
His first big splash came at the 2003 International Ice Hockey Federation Under-18 Championships in Yaroslavl. Evgeni’s Russian team earned bronze, and he recorded 9 points in 6 games. Off of that strong debut, Evgeni was chosen to captain Russia at the 2004 Worlds, and he recorded 8 points – though, more important, Russia won the gold.
Evgeni was selected second at the 2004 NHL entry draft, though then Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick believed he had landed a franchise-caliber center around whom he could build a Stanley Cup contender.
Patrick was not wrong.
Going for his dream
Neither Evgeni nor his family will ever forget 2006. He represented Russia at the World Juniors, the World Championships and, in between, the Winter Olympic Games. Evgeni captained Russia to silver at the World Juniors and led the team with 9 points at the World Championships, but as one of the youngest men’s hockey players at the Olympics he produced 6 points in 7 games – though he left Turin disappointed that Russia did not medal. Next up was his anticipated NHL debut, though things did not go smoothly.
Evgeni was considered the best player not in the NHL in summer 2006, but he had been pressured into signing a new contract with his hometown Metallurg club. Officials with Metallurg applied great pressure on Evgeni, their start player, whom they wanted to keep as a star attraction for a planned new arena. But Evgeni wanted to be in Pittsburgh, playing alongside another talented and touted young center, Sidney Crosby. With Metallurg in Finland on a training exercise, Evgeni left the team – and, back in Magnitogorsk, his parents and brother – to travel to the United States. His American agent, J.P. Barry, helped free him of his Russian contract, leaving Evgeni free to finally realize his dream of playing in the NHL.
THE BIRTH OF A SUPERSTAR
Evgeni missed the Penguins’ first 4 regular-season games, but his debut on Oct. 18, 2006, will be long remembered. In that game, at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena (The Igloo), Evgeni was the last player to take the ice, with Crosby’s approval. Evgeni scored a breathtaking goal, his first in the NHL, against New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, who has won more games than any goaltender in NHL history. Evgeni finished that firs tseason in Pittsburgh with 33 goals and 85 points, and he was the runaway winner of the Calder Trophy that is awarded to the NHL’s top rookie player. Evgeni became only the second Pittsburgh player to ever win that trophy, joining Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.
Year 2 was even better for Evgeni in Pittsburgh. After a slow start, he carried the Penguins during an injury to Crosby in the second half. Assuming top center duties for the first time in the NHL, Evgeni nearly chased down Ovechkin for the Art Ross trophy. He finished second in overall scoring with 47 goals and 106 points. Evgeni also finished second to Ovechkin in the vote for the Hart Trophy, or the NHL’s most valuable player award.
The Penguins played in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, but lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. It was the most disappointed Evgeni had ever been, coming so close to his first championship. However, he scored 10 goals and recorded 22 points in 20 playoff games. In July 2008, Evgeni signed a contract extension with the Penguins. Always the great teammate, he agreed to the same deal that Crosby had signed the summer before – five years and $43.5 million. A glorious year followed.
Becoming a champion
Evgeni won his first NHL scoring title with 113 points, though the hockey media again voted him second to Ovechkin in the MVP ballot. Evgeni won the MVP that mattered, though. He led all NHL players with 36 playoff points as the Penguins won the Cup for the first time since 1992. Evgeni won the Conn Smyth as playoff MVP, and he became the first player since Lemieux (1992) to lead the NHL in regular-season and post-season scoring. Evgeni’s 36 playoff points were the most for any NHL player since Wayne Gretzky in 1994.
His parents and brother watched all of it, having spent most of the NHL’s second half in Pittsburgh helping Evgeni move into his new home – and, of course, convincing Natalia that her borscht was Evgeni’s good-luck charm before games. In July 2009, Evgeni treated Magnitogorsk to two days of celebration with the Cup. Injuries limited Evgeni the next two NHL seasons, tough he still averaged over a point per game. He was also disappointed by Russia’s poor finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The 2010-11 NHL campaign was particularly frustrating for Evgeni, who injured his knee in February 2011. The Penguins need him most then because Crosby was injured, but Evgeni had torn ligaments in his right knee and he would not play again – though, he tried to convince Penguins physicians to let him play in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Helping his teammates meant that much to Evgeni, and he was determined in summer 2011 to train harder than ever and reclaim his lofty position as an NHL superstar. He certainly did not disappoint. With Crosby out for much of the season, Evgeni was the Penguins’ top center, and the NHL’s top player. He scored 50 goals in an NHL season for the first time, and his 109 points brought him the Art Ross trophy for a second time. Also, finally, Evgeni finally was voted first on the Hart ballot, giving him the rare career of a player who has won the regular-season and playoff MVP, in addition to multiple scoring titles and the Cup.
At the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas in June, Evgeni memorably gave his MVP speech in English, his second language. He dedicated the honor to Sergei Gonchar, his best friend and former Penguins teammate. A frustrating first-round playoff loss by the Penguins allowed Evgeni to compete for Russia at the 2012 World Championships. Russia won the tournament, and Evgeni was selected as the most outstanding player. The future looks bright for Evgeni, especially when the NHL returns from a labor dispute. Though, even the lockout was not totally disappointing for Evgeni, because he spent it playing for his old team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, with Gonchar.
Evgeni is just getting started, but he is already on his way to a Hockey Hall-of-Fame career.
–BY ROB ROSSI of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Evgeni Malkin’s authorized biographer