Tuesday, March 04, 2008

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]

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At 3:06 a.m., March 04, 2008, Blogger Bill Needle said...

Vladimir Guerrero has a similar story in that he grew up in a remote region of a foreign country and didn't learn English. He also has great talent, becomes a superstar yet becomes one of the great enigmas of the game, because he mostly sticks to himself and to family members. And what he says to the media usually comes from Spanish-speaking teammates.

At 8:10 a.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Mark Cuban might have discussed this on his blog, but I know he talked about how he was so impressed with a goal Malkin scored in a game he saw that he bought a Penguins jersey right away, and got it signed at a basketball game later - it might have been the same night, I can't remember.

Whatever language he speaks and however quiet he is, the talent speaks volumes - and that might be enough for many fans, especially the ones who only see him in game highlights or video clips and don't care if he is a mute as long as he keeps playing the same way for a good long time.

At 8:44 a.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wouldn't be so quick to label him as "already one of the greatest Russians ever". I have few doubts that hill will eventually be in that group, but at this stage he still has a ways to go before I would consider him in the top 8-10 best Russian born players.

At 9:46 a.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous penaltyshots.ca said...

Is it now time for Crosby to experiment with playing on the wing? I will be interested in seeing what Crosby's return will bring.

At 9:46 a.m., March 04, 2008, Blogger The Forechecker said...

"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."

Unusual, to be sure, but hardly unprecedented, as Ichiro Suzuki's fans can attest to.

And don't forget Sammy Sosa, baseball's MVP in 1998. When he went to Washington to testify about steroids, we suddenly found out that he couldn't speak English either.

At 10:50 a.m., March 04, 2008, Blogger Dennis Prouse said...

James, I would put him in the top five in the League right now, perhaps even top three. I was lucky enough to have lower level seats to see the Penguins and Senators on Saturday, and this kid is a marvel. As you mentioned, he is an incredible skater, all the more impressive when you see how big he is. (You have to see the game live to appreciate his size -- Jagr is the same way.) He has a shot almost as impressive as Ovechkin's, makes beautiful passes, and enjoys the physical play. In a game that also featured Heatley and Alfredsson, he was the most talented player on the ice by a significant margin. Every time he was out there, he was a threat, and created some offence.

Regarding his inability to speak English, there seems to be two kinds of Russian players. There are the kind who just love North American culture, dive right in and never look back. Then there are the ones who are never quite fully comfortable here, and are always pining for home. Ovechkin clearly falls into the first category, while Malkin obviously is the latter type.

At 11:18 a.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous War Penguin said...

Malkin is just now starting to speak English in press appearances. His English is awkward, but the conventional wisdom is, he's better at speaking it to his teammates in the dressing room than his media appearances would suggest. I suspect that he's not necessarily pining for home; it's more that he's somewhat introverted and reserved in a classically Russian way.

At 11:23 a.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guerrero was just at the other end of the highway for a few years and he couldn't speak the language at all. A guy from T.O. should have known that.

At 3:45 p.m., March 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your question remains for some of us in Pittsburgh, too.

We see and hear more from Malkin than most other cities, to be sure, but what he shows us is mostly through that big smile, the questions he sometimes answers before they're translated - more proof he does know more than he's letting on - and anecdotes from team outings.

As far as I can remember, Malkin has conducted two interviews entirely in English: one in front of a small group of reporters after practice and a between-periods chat with the FSN-Pittsburgh anchor during a TV broadcast.

Still, if Geno keeps playing the way he has of late, we can deal with the silences.

At 5:04 p.m., March 04, 2008, Blogger Cameron said...

For me the correct comparison is to Jagr. Same imposing frame, same deceptive speed for a big man, similar shooting mechanics, the 'fear-my-wingspan' dekes, and especially how he comes out from the corner looking to pick a corner.

If he grows a ridiculous mullet you'll know the cloning was a complete success.

At 5:13 p.m., March 04, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

He's built so much differently than Jagr, and plays a different position. Malkin's also more fleet of foot, and goes into traffic more readily.

The most dramatic difference is in their attitudes though — Malkin's not sulky or a primadonna in any sense.

At 9:21 a.m., March 06, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, I have an answer to the Malkin PR problem. Let's start calling him Eugene (english translation of Evgeny) Somehow, the name Eugene has PR and star written all over it! Hey look at how Nikolai became Nik and now has blossomed into the 2nd leading Leaf, and maybe future captain.


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