Evgeni Vladmirovich Malkin is a towering center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, standing at 6’3” the Russian’s skating stride at full speed is a thing of beauty. His vision and raw skill are arguably the best in the game of hockey. He is a top-5 player and a top-line center on 27 of the 30 NHL teams. Lucky for Pittsburgh, Malkin isn’t the kind to want that No. 1 role, he’s just fine right where he is.
Lately, reports are coming out that Malkin is unhappy. There are rumors the enigmatic (sportswriter code for “moody”) Russian wants a trade, similarly timed as the Neal trade last summer. These are simply not true. With all due respect to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet (who blurted this “rumor” out on a Calgary radio station last week), these rumors aren’t even fit to mentioning in any report on the record and anyone who has ever met the man knows exactly why.
Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk, Russia, is the town Malkin hails from. This may sound like a bunch of nonsense to anyone else, but that is, in my opinion, the key. Magnitogorsk the name means “city by the magnetic mountain” and was so called for the neighboring Magnitnaya Mountain which, in a geological anomaly, was found to be almost completely made of iron. This made Magnitogorsk, or Magnitka, the perfect site for mining and milling.
By the 1930’s the small town had blown up to become a massive steel town based in architecture and usage on two prominent western mill cities, Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s right Pittsburgh, your favorite Russian grew up in a town based off of yours. Think about it this way. In a town where everything is different down to things as fundamental as letters of the alphabet and which knob holds hot and cold water, to be in a place laid out even in principle like the one you grew up in had to be comforting for young Malkin who had to physically run away to even get here.
But, as with everything, the cities have changed.
Pittsburgh has become what Magnitogorsk in so many ways has failed to become. We’ve dug out of our polluted past that the Russian city now finds itself facing.
Malkin has changed too. He has won two scoring titles, a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe, and two of each of the top three medals at the IIHF World Hockey Championship. “Zhenya”, as his Russian nickname calls him, has made Moscow his off-season home. He’s gone through stages of anger, frustration, and finally, acceptance over any number of things from his health to his teams’ shortcomings. Now, on the doorstep of 30 with an artificial knee, two injury hampered seasons, and a painful Olympics loss in 2014, it’s easy to see why it would be easy for him to call for a reset and a move to another team.
It would be easy for the Jaromir Jagr to Sidney Crosby’s Mario Lemieux to leave, but this isn’t what he wants.
As recently as 2012, Malkin’s family mentioned wanting to move here. Obviously, Russia will always be home but Pittsburgh and the way the town has thrown its arms around its red son means a lot to him and his family. Natalia Malkina would love for her youngest son to start a family of his own and surely if he did so in Pittsburgh, she would feel comfortable making it her home too, at least for a portion of the year.
Malkin is no longer the quiet boy who relied on Sergei Gonchar when he moved to the States. He’s a confident man who has told the media, teammates, and team brass when to calm down. He’s accepted his bigger role and loves the coaching staff in place, especially Mike Johnston who made every effort to reach out to Geno last summer, even visting him in Moscow. Why would he want to leave a coach who is tough but fair with him?
Sure, the narrative of ‘Malkin wants out just like Jagr did because he isn’t the spotlight’ is easy. It would be easy for people to point to some parallels and call both players jilted and angry with the franchise. Unhappy they weren’t the face or some other concocted nonsense.
But Malkin likes and even prefers it this way. In 2012, when Crosby was dealing with concussion issues his biggest supporter came in the form of number 71. He emphatically called it “Sid’s team” over and over in reference to whether or not Crosby should have had his ‘C’ stripped. Malkin doesn’t like media spotlight. While it’s something he deals with a lot better now than in the past, a tiger can’t change its stripes, he’s always going to try to get out of media scrums. That’s just Geno and that’s part of his appeal.
Being on a team with Crosby means less pressure on Malkin and that’s when he’s most capable of magic. He steps up whenever Crosby isn’t playing with injury or illness and has proved he can outpace Crosby, like he did early in the 2014-2015 season with incredible scoring streaks that set career highs for him. He simply isn’t power or spotlight hungry though and thinks being on a team with 87 will always give him a better chance at winning than being on a team without him.
As a city and a fanbase people should be taking notes from his agent, J.P. Barry, who said he is “trying to ignore [the rumors].” Evgeni Malkin was born in Russia, but his heart is with Pittsburgh and he has no desire to change that any time soon.