Hockey's silent superstar
I think Evgeni Malkin's one of the truly fascinating stories of this season — but it's a story that hasn't been particularly easy to tell.
It's unprecedented, really, in North American pro sports that we're seeing a player who can't speak English challenging for the league MVP, especially in a media-saturated era where the game's stars are on highlight packages every night, giving interviews and "selling the game" to a wider audience.
Malkin can't do that, not really anyway, but the NHL did put him on a conference call yesterday afternoon that turned out to be equal parts awkward and unique. It was almost like the telephone game, with reporters asking Penguins defenceman Sergei Gonchar to relay questions to Malkin, the pair talking over his answers in muted Russian, and Gonchar doing his best to translate on the fly.
What came out was certainly some representation of what was said, but it's pretty hard to read much into the bare bones answers resulting from that process. There weren't any funny anecdotes, and few moments of levity, on the 22 minute call, and you really didn't gain much insight into Malkin's life on or off the ice. (You can pick up the audio here under 'conference calls' and Kukla's Korner has published the transcript.)
The question — for everyone outside of Pittsburgh anyway — remains 'Who really is Evgeni Malkin?'
And if you can't answer that one, how can you possibly sell him as the new face of your game?
Fans across North America have already gotten to know Crosby and Ovechkin, and you'll see kids everywhere from Vancouver to New York picking up their jerseys and wanting to be like those marketable stars.
Malkin? Not so much, at least not yet, and that's really too bad. What we do know of him is, as I said, fascinating — especially given that he's not the golden goose like Ovechkin, who as the son of former star athletes had quite a few more advantages and grew up a Muscovite in relative luxury. Malkin's father, meanwhile, was a shopkeeper in the remote steel region of Magnitogorsk, and learning English just wasn't part of the family's daily life.
Even now, Malkin's down time consists of living with Gonchar's family, staying quiet and spending considerable time on the internet keeping his connection to the old country.
But his talent — well, wow. It's immeasurable, really. Malkin's already one of the greatest Russian players ever, and he's played all of 145 NHL games. He's perhaps the smoothest skating big man I've ever seen, and no one in the league has produced like he has since Jan. 1, putting up 22 goals and nearly two points a game in his last 28 games.
He's already arrived as a bona fide superstar at 21 years old, one of the top 10 or 15 players in the NHL.
Maybe he doesn't have the raucous celebrations or funny postgame quips like Ovechkin, but Malkin's going to shape the face of the NHL for 15 years to come. He's that good.
I'm rooting for him.
Stepping out of the shadows [Eric Duhatschek]
Malkin a man of few words [The Canadian Press]
The Daily Fix [The Wall Street Journal]