Language barriers falling quickly for Penguins' Malkin

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MONTREAL -- Evgeni Malkin is finding a new comfort zone during the NHL All-Star weekend.

OK, a lot of it has to do with the other Russian players on the Eastern Conference squad. The Penguins' center has gravitated toward them since he got here Friday.

And when he's using his English, he's humble and honest, if not always politically correct in this frozen hockey mecca, where temperatures have hovered around or below zero Fahrenheit. Asked about his favorite NHL cities to visit, Malkin ignored the obvious answer and said, "LA, Florida. Not Montreal. It's cold."

But Malkin is finding it easier to navigate verbally through the locker room, on the ice and in interview settings.

"It's my third year. I'm not nervous," said Malkin, 22, who was an NHL YoungStar as a rookie and tonight will play in the main All-Star Game for the second year in a row.


TODAY

Game: NHL All-Star Game, 6 p.m.

TV: Versus.



In the SuperSkills last night, he won the accuracy shooting event and pulled some antics with Wasington winger and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin.

People still take it easy on him in terms of English, but he no longer relies on a Russian interpreter -- last year at the All-Star Game, that was teammate Sergei Gonchar.

"I'm trying more and more," Malkin said. "Now, it's a little bit harder questions. It's good. I understand."

For being the NHL's leading scorer with 70 points, Malkin is flying under the radar. He has not been hit up the hardest for autographs or surrounded with long lines of reporters and videographers. The Canadiens players and Quebec province natives draw that attention.

During a media session Friday, Malkin sat quietly for periods of time between interviews with mostly Pittsburgh and Russian-language reporters.

When he was questioned, Malkin was prepared with fairly pat answers -- no, he doesn't consider himself the best player in the league; yes, he will try to win the scoring championship.

The players were at podiums in pairs. Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk -- who, when he walked in and saw the name of his seatmate said, "Evgeni Malkin? Nice!" -- was visited by more reporters. It's widely known that Kovalchuk, who also is Russian, has been doing interviews in English for some time, while Malkin might still have a reputation for being reluctant to speak his second language.

Consider what happened last year in Atlanta. After the All-Star Game, in which Malkin had two assists, he was about to start doing an interview with a couple reporters, then ran away as cameras approached.

No amount of coaxing from Gonchar or the Penguins public relations staff could get Malkin to attempt to talk. He hid in the shower area until reporters gave up.

There have been only glimpses of such skittishness this time.

Such as yesterday morning when there were practices open to the public.

During the Eastern Conference workout, Malkin hung as much as possible with Kovalchuk and Ovechkin and another fellow Russian Alex Kovalev of Montreal.

He said he tried to make light conversation with English-speaking All-Star teammates.

"It's just easy -- How are you? Last night, who go out?" Malkin said.

After practice, with the Eastern Conference locker room jammed with players, reporters and staff, Malkin was out of sight riding a stationary bike, sitting in the sauna, showering and getting dressed. By the time he emerged, he talked to the few stragglers.

During media day Friday, panic set in only a couple times. Once was when Versus reporter Chris Simpson approached to tell Malkin she wanted to interview him on the Bell Centre bench during the game. He calmed down when she promised it would just be one or two simple questions.

Another moment of fear came when his team escort, Penguins director of communications Jen Bullano, tried to get him to sit down with the NHL Network in a nearby makeshift studio.

"Noooo," Malkin said, eyeing the bright TV lights and somewhat formal setting. "I'm not going."

Malkin and Kovalev are starters for the game tonight. East coach Claude Julien of Boston and assistant Guy Carbonneau of Montreal wouldn't say how they might mix lines, but there is at least a chance Malkin could end up playing on an all-Russian line at least some of the time.

That would be a nice capper for Malkin.

"For me, it's a good time," he said of the weekend. "I see some of my [Russian] friends. I'm enjoying it."

Just don't ask him to try to predominant tongue here.

"No. No French," he said.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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