Friday, August 18, 2006

Escape to L.A.
Malkin's flight from his homeland

The longer this Evgeni Malkin saga has gone on — and as more details come out — the harder it becomes to blame the 20 year old for anything that’s come to pass.

Everything points to all kinds of shenanigans going on with Malkin’s hometown club, Magnitogorsk Metallurg, where he’s played the past three seasons. Over the past few days, we’ve heard tales of a 3 a.m. contract signing and immense pressure from the team on Malkin to keep him in Russia. Yesterday, we learned the team had even put a lockdown on his passport in a bid to keep him immobile.

Now, the team’s GM can scream bloody murder all he likes, but if he wants to brand anyone as undemocratic, it appears the charge would be well served against himself and his organization.

We’ve also heard from the media how times have changed in Russia, and that the talk of a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ escape from the country by hockey players was a thing of a past. Given the way things went down, however, with Malkin’s agent parachuting into Finland and staying with him in a hideout, it’s easy to see the parallels with the defections of yesteryear.

My recent experience with the Russian Hockey Federation came at the 2006 World Junior Championship just after Christmas. Even then, a lot of the team’s dealings were rather clandestine.

A good example came in Kamloops, where the Russians were scheduled to play Latvia on the Thursday night but were supposed to arrive in the city and practice in the morning. Looking to write a small feature on Malkin, I’d managed to get a copy of the team’s entire itinerary — when and where they would eat, when practice was, etc. — for the few days they were in Kamloops.

The thing was, the Russians were never where they were supposed to be.

Practices were cancelled, media availability was denied and the team’s demeanor just had a very peculiar air to it. Unable to track down anyone from the club, I filed a story about the Swedish team that afternoon and went to the Latvia-Russia game that night hoping to speak to Malkin.

Following Russia’s 3-1 win, however, the team was quickly herded onto the bus while the coach and one player answered a few brief questions through a translator in the media room. Malkin was nowhere to be found.

The youngster eventually spoke to reporters during the later stages of the tournament, but I have no doubt that, had the Russian federation got its way, things would have run as undercover as they did in the round-robin stages throughout the tourney.

I’d earlier called Malkin ‘impetuous’ but as I said above, as the details add up, it’s tough to lay any of the blame with the player here.

One of the things that no one has talked about lately — something I’d planned on writing about way back in December — is Malkin’s background. Unlike his close friend Alex Ovechkin, who is from Moscow and whose parents were both famed athletes (his mother won two Olympic gold medals as a basketball player and his father was a professional soccer player), Malkin is from humble beginnings. I believe his father was a small shopkeeper in Magnitogorsk, and that the family struggled to make ends meet during some of the tougher times of the country’s decline. (Magnitogorsk is essentially an industrial centre, known for its steel production since the Second World War when the city produced the bulk of the metal that was used in Joseph Stalin’s tanks and artillery.)

Why does Malkin’s background matter?

Well, one can’t help but see these differences between Ovechkin and Malkin, and how easy it was for one to escape his homeland, and how the experience was the exact opposite for the other.

Of course, much of the difficulty Malkin faced was due to the lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Hockey Federation, the IIHF and the NHL. Still, the fact is that Malkin’s family had far less influence in Russia and were far more dependant on their hometown club than Ovechkin would have been. You can call it status or whatever you like, but the deck was certainly stacked much more heavily against Malkin than his now-famed pal.

ESPN’s Scott Burnside was one of those critical of Malkin yesterday, digging up a quote from an unnamed source that says the youngster is untrustworthy.

Given what’s unfolded the past few days and Malkin’s humble beginnings, however, it’d be nice to see him escape this conflict for a while and bring the kind of energy and excitement to the NHL that Ovechkin did last season.

After all, some good has to come out of a situation as ugly as this.


At 7:58 a.m., August 18, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

Boy, that Burnside article is a little harsh on Malkin, not to mention a little ethnocentric. Kudos to you for a better understanding of the post-police state mentality of the new "democratic" Russia.

Methods of coercion are sadly commonplace in Russia. Extortion does not only involve money. Someone's talent can be extorted from them just as easily as their money in certain societies.

At 9:54 a.m., August 18, 2006, Blogger Matt said...

Didn't a fairly prominent Russian player in the NHL have his family kidnapped in Russia by the mob? Am I remembering this wrong or perhaps making it up entirely? Something about this is really ringing a bell, though. It was within the last 4-5 years -- after the fall of communism -- if I recall correctly.

At 10:59 a.m., August 18, 2006, Anonymous rajeev said...

it was oleg tverdovsky's mom, and it happened shortly after he entered the nhl.

At 3:34 p.m., August 18, 2006, Blogger ScottyWazz said...

Burnside's article is a little more tame than that of Steve Simmons, who ripped Malkin a new one in Thursday's Sun.

Also, there's word coming out of Metallurg that the owners have given the GM the okay to use as much money as needed to battle legal issues. Apparently, Metallurg reps are talking to US lawyers and could be flying to the States as soon as this week.

The fun never stops.

At 5:43 p.m., August 18, 2006, Anonymous oglethorpe said...

James it's the GM who's being a big knob here-the coach of Metallurg is Dave King, who's on record as having encouraged Malkin to bolt. And I find it hilarious that Steve Simmons thinks he can judge anyone.

At 5:46 p.m., August 18, 2006, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Thanks Ogle — that's my mistake. I'll change it in the copy.

At 9:20 p.m., August 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott Burnside is from Windsor Ontario.
Therefore anything he writes about hockey is irrelevant.

At 12:37 a.m., August 19, 2006, Anonymous Sherrie said...

his authority on strip clubs however...

Darren Dreger had a one-on-one with Malkin on TSN tonight with the help of a translator. Lots of repeated use of the words "psychological pressure" and a reporter talked about the late-night meetings with millionaire businessmen to pressure Malkin to return to the Russian club.

At 6:41 a.m., August 19, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

Can anyone imagine what would happen if Sid Crosby's negotiations had gone like Malkin's? If Mario had shown up at Sid's house with armed bodyguards at 3 AM to say, "Son, it's time to talk contract. We're going to make you an offer you cannot refuse." Would Crosby be a jerk for ordering Mario out of his house? Of course not. So why should Malkin bear any stigma for leaving Russia after being subjected to such psychological pressure?

It's ironic that thuggish pseudo-police state tactics have gained so many defenders in North America in the last six years or so. It would stand to reason that anyone who is forced against their will to be someplace that they do not wish to be is being extorted. They aren't being honorable by honoring the terms of extortion. Rather, they are bowing to intimidation. What Malkin did shows courage--the likes of which most North Americans don't even encounter in their lives, ever.

At 1:07 p.m., August 20, 2006, Blogger Doogie said...

I find it amusing that so many "real" journalists condemned us Oilers fans for our harsh judgment and suppositions during the news void Chris Pronger left after his trade request, yet Steve Simmons is all too happy to do effectively the same thing with Malkin without knowing any facts. Real responsible journalism there, Stevo. One more reason why I don't buy the Sun.

At 2:41 p.m., August 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, there's word coming out of Metallurg that the owners have given the GM the okay to use as much money as needed to battle legal issues. Apparently, Metallurg reps are talking to US lawyers and could be flying to the States as soon as this week.

For once and once only, I hope someone gets a really tough time from TSA on their way in to the US.

Sad to see that the same old bullying stereotypes are alive and well in Russia. With a coerced contract, I fail to see a leg for Metallurg to stand on. They would be better off not wasting their time and travel miles, and realize that in the extortion business, they can't compete with a sports agent! :)


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