Evgeni Malkin: A Russian tale with roots founded in ice and iron



MAGNITOGORSK, Russia -- Up here, at the top of Magnetic Mountain, the past is alive. On the edge of the river where west becomes east and Europe finally yields to Asia, the factory's smokestacks stretch as far as the eye can see, and the horizon is forever blurred by the pall and plume of gunmetal gray.

Up here, Magnitogorsk is what you expected it to be. Frozen. Forlorn. Forbidding. A town built by the vision of a cruel, calculating man. More than eight decades after Joseph Stalin demanded a city be settled around the natural gifts hidden inside this mountain, Magnitogorsk still spits out more steel than most other places on the planet.

Up here, you get chills, from the sub-zero temperatures, and from just thinking about what was sacrificed. People born here didn't get to have dreams, to imagine beyond the Ural Mountains. Their lives were constrained by ideology, the needs of the state dwarfing their own.

Yes, if you stayed up here, it would remain very, very cold. But there is warmth to be found in Magnitogorsk. Come down from the mountain, and you'll start to feel it as you pass over the ice-covered Ural River, toward the European side, where the people live.

When you glimpse the small two-room apartment where Vladimir and Natalia Malkin raised their two boys, and the humble slab of ice on an adjacent street where the father taught his sons to play a simple game after he came home from the factory, you can sense a certain resolve.

As Denis and Evgeni grew up, the old walls began to tumble. It was perfect timing, their family's steely spirit intermingling with sweet, sweet opportunity. They say Evgeni, the younger brother by a year, was born hungry for success. He could do anything he wanted! Of course, all the boy really wanted was a puppy.

Now make the trip just a few kilometers north on Karl Marx Street, to the large brick house where Vladimir and Natalia live today. Here is Vladimir, running around the cul-de-sac outside the home his son gave to him, smiling and laughing. Here is Geoffrey, the 120-pound slobbering, growling French Mastiff, stuffing his face into the snow and dragging Vladimir by the leash.

If that dog could talk, he would tell quite a story. Of Evgeni buying Geoffrey, taking the 10-pound puppy home, and then leaving Geoffrey forever a few weeks later. Nobody, not even his parents, knew it was coming, this escape that was straight out of a Tom Clancy novel. All of a sudden, Evgeni was just gone, in the middle of the night, leaving his city and the coaches who cultivated his brilliance with broken hearts.

PG map: Sochi, Russia
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He would be a Pittsburgh Penguin. His talent would be the world's to cherish. Would he still be Magnitogorsk's, too?

Today, Evgeni Malkin is a Stanley Cup champion and one of the best hockey players in the world. He returns home about once a year, usually for five or six days. And when he arrives at the house he bought for his parents as a teenager, he can't help but notice: His full-grown puppy has no idea who he is.

A steel connection

He was 25, with a job at the Magnitogorsk Steel and Iron Works like most young men in town. She was 22, with a round face and big brown eyes that set her apart.

Vladimir and Natalia would be introduced to each other by a mutual friend at a party. Years later, after they had fallen in love and she had taken his name, they would give their friend the credit. But, fact was, Vladimir and Natalia Malkin never would have met if not for the lure of the mountain.

Rising almost out of nowhere, it towered over the surrounding snow-white plains, its plentiful iron ore dictating the way of life for a strong-minded people. Its pull would only intensify, generation by generation, until it could not be escaped. Powerful and ambitious men from the cities to the west would succumb to it, calling for hordes of workers to mine the metallurgical marvel, fueling their wars and seemingly limitless future with bright orange fires.

Inside and outside their new society, still humming with the fervor of an October Revolution, the people listened, and soon, their town would be given a name befitting its lone significant property: "City of the Magnetic Mountain," or, Magnitogorsk.

Natalia's grandparents were among the first to hear Stalin's bell, in 1929, traveling the nearly 2,000 kilometers from their home in Belgorod, near the border of Ukraine, to this untamed river town. Like the thousands of others who uprooted from around the world to Magnitogorsk, they were sold a story of a Bolshevik utopia being built so far away that non-Socialist regimes could not find it, let alone topple it.

There, as the Communist Party pushed for the necessary industrialization to protect it during the wars that would inevitably come, people would have steady work and equal pay, no matter your surname or where home was. Only, the technology was all new, lifted from proven American industrial behemoths, and delivered without proper training to a workforce that knew only agricultural work.

A Soviet delegation traveled to the United States, to cities such as Pittsburgh and Chicago and Gary, where the American engineers scoffed when the Soviets said they wanted to build a plant and start making steel in a few years. Then, nobody could have understood Stalin's obsession, the things he'd do at any cost to get his results.

Within three years of starting Magnitogorsk from scratch, without railroad lines, apartments or a sewage system, the plant was producing pig iron. Within one more year, steel would follow.

John Scott, a freshly graduated American student from Wisconsin, became enamored with the Bolshevik cause and moved to Magnitogorsk to work in the factory and write a book about it. Upon arriving in 1932, he was met with a paradoxical and fantastical scene, where people lived in tents and barracks -- the unlucky ones froze or starved to death -- yet still managed to breathe unwavering enthusiasm into a movement that wasn't at all theirs.

In his book "Behind the Urals," Scott wrote of an unskilled workforce that was up at 6 in the morning, learning on the job for 16 hours a day the processes that had been refined for decades in developed countries. And after the Russians held off the Germans in the Second World War, Scott, then back in America, would tell all who would listen that the Soviets couldn't have done it without the metal -- and mettle -- of Magnitogorsk.

The people were proud there. Growing up, Natalia did not ask her grandparents about what it was like in those early days. She just sort of knew they didn't want to talk about it. Her parents would work there, too, and that's just how it was.

"We had no alternative," Natalia says. "We could not travel abroad in other countries, Europe. But then no one really thought about it. It was absolutely fine. You were born in a particular city, studied and began working at the company in the city."

In the early 1960s, Vladimir Malkin's parents journeyed the 1,200 kilometers from the Penza region of the Soviet Union to Magnitogorsk, joining family in working at the factory. As his father toiled as a driver of heavy vehicles, Vladimir went to school and learned to play hockey.

The Metallurg Magnitogorsk hockey team had begun in the 1950s, but it was just a club program. The Soviets outlawed professional sports, seeing them as emblematic of the greed that plagued the West. Metallurg did not have its own arena. For a boy, there was no life in hockey, no matter how much of a desire he had.

Vladimir showed skill with the Metallurg youth teams. But at 18, he spent his mandatory two years with the Soviet Army in a peaceful period. When he returned to Magnitogorsk, he found that he was not the same player as before, and he entered the factory repairing equipment in the oxygen plant.

"It's hard work," Vladimir recalls, "a lot of monotonous noise."

But it would provide enough income to raise a family. History had shown that very well. And so, not long after he first saw Natalia at that party, Vladimir found her address and convinced her to go on a date with him.

'Star fever'

On the clearest days, when blue skies backed the persistent gray, young Evgeni Malkin could look on that mountain from the river's west bank and feel a deep yearning in his gut as he walked to ice hockey school.

That mountain had given his family everything. There wasn't much, no, but there was a life. Three generations of his blood had sweated in that factory. The town's story was his story. And here was the thing -- yes, his father's days were long, but the man didn't complain.

"We have four people in our family, and just my father working," Evgeni recalls of those days. "And he needed more money. It's not easy. You have to care for your family and work hard every day because you have two kids, and kids want ice cream and candy."

What Vladimir could give them was a deep knowledge of the game he had mastered as a younger man. He first put ice skates on Evgeni when the boy was 3. Evgeni would begin attending the Metallurg Magnitogorsk hockey school around 5.

Vladimir understood what Evgeni couldn't: The Russian existence, with the fall of the Soviet Union, was making a slow and methodical transition. When Vladimir was a young player, Magnitogorsk did not have a proper arena. But in 1991, the Ivan Romazan Ice Palace opened just a few city blocks from the Malkins' 10-story apartment building.

Romazan was the president of the Magnitogorsk Steel and Iron Works, and he had shown great cunning in getting a sports arena commissioned during the Soviet era. Then, in 1993, future plant president Viktor Rashnikov began pumping major investment into the Metallurg franchise, including more resources devoted to the hockey school.

Rashnikov knew more than most about production of raw materials, and into this new appreciation for human development stepped Evgeni and his friends. He was an active boy, so getting up at 6 in the morning just like all of those plant workers was fine with him. He and about 60 others could play hockey in an arena before and after elementary school. What could be bad about that?

There, the coaches would challenge this fresh crop of youngsters by reminding them in a not-too-subtle way that, if they did not excel at hockey, they would end up working across the river in that factory, which now spanned 20,000 acres around the mountain.

Evgeni didn't have to be encouraged. He had always been captivated by hockey. When he was a toddler, Natalia once visited his bed and saw him sleeping in a goalie mask. At 11, he broke his leg during the summer and was on crutches. Vladimir assumed that meant Evgeni would not play in the first hockey tournaments of the fall, and he was shocked when a friend asked him why he wasn't at the game that day to see Evgeni play.

"The coach tried to stop Evgeni," Vladimir says, "but it was impossible."

The game brought joy to Evgeni, but it did not solve everything. His parents still would not let him get a dog.

"He asked very often," Natalia says, "even wrote a school essay that said 'My mother does not allow me to get a dog.' "

Evgeni would just have to keep working. He had immediately shown how gifted he was with the puck on his stick, and he was placed on his brother's team with boys a year older. Evgeni was unafraid to stand in front of the net against bigger kids, taking hit after hit. He cared so much he would cry after losses. And before long, he'd be named captain of the older group.

"I'm like, 'Wow,' it's a surprise to me," Evgeni recalls after a recent Penguins practice in Pittsburgh. "The coach said, 'No, you are the best player on the ice. You should be captain, because you work hard. These guys, they're bigger and they're older, but they want to follow you.' "

They followed him to American cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Albany, where the Metallurg Magnitogorsk youth team, backed by Rashnikov's money, brought home championships. And there came a time in all of the boys' lives, usually around 16 or 17, when they had to decide if they wanted to keep pushing to make the pro team or go to a technical school or university so they could get a job in the town's fast-modernizing factory.

For Ivan Semochkin, one of Evgeni's teammates, the right decision was to end his hockey career. He went to school to study the enrichment of minerals. But it was clear to him, and to everyone else, where Evgeni was headed.

"If you look at Malkin," Semochkin says, "you see that he will definitely be a professional hockey player."

Evgeni had joined Metallurg's B-team, where players could get stuck for years before making the jump to the pros or deciding to give up their pursuit. Evgeni was only there for a few months before he signed his first pro contract, at age 17, to play for Metallurg during the 2003-04 season.

On the ice, the club worked him into their lineup gradually. They did not want to rush him. But in the small apartment on Karl Marx Street, Evgeni's mind remained active.

He wanted to buy his family a new home, one in a nicer neighborhood, where they wouldn't have to share their walls with others any longer. His parents suggested they just expand the apartment. Evgeni would not hear it. They all went to look at homes together, and it was intoxicating, simply having so many options.

"Maybe Evgeni had some 'star fever,' " Vladimir says. "Evgeni was on the rise. He felt that he could now help our family. It was very important to him."

Says Metallurg general manager Gennady Velichkin, "He walked light. It was his greatest achievement. First victory. Real happiness."

So Evgeni Malkin moved his parents and his brother into their own house, tucked away in an older part of town behind tall brown brick walls, where their neighbors were higher in the factory pecking order. But he was not exactly happy. He did not relax in the house with the marble staircase and the mirrors lining the long first-floor hallway, not for a second, for there was still much to explore and pursue in this ever-evolving country of his.

Escape from Helsinki

Evgeni Malkin did not feel like a star. Sure, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL had drafted him second overall in the 2004 amateur draft, so people knew his name. But during his first three seasons with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he had not even scored 100 total points.

He was ready to make a move. He had never been patient. Now American agent J.P. Barry was in his ear, saying that the 2006-07 season was the time for him to seize his destiny across the Atlantic Ocean.

"Malkin was hungry," says Andrei Zaitsev, a Magnitogorsk restaurateur and club owner who befriended Evgeni around that time. "He wanted to change everything. There are people who are 'fed' in the sports world, and they cease to play. Malkin was hungry."

Of course, when it came time to actually make his decision official, it was not that simple. The Malkins had been under the impression that Evgeni could get out of his contract after the 2005-06 season to join the Penguins. In June 2006, he sent a fax to Velichkin with notice that he was exercising his right under Russian labor law to terminate his contract with two weeks' notice.

Velichkin said he had given the Malkins no such assurances, and he could sense that this precious gem of a hockey player, produced right there in Magnitogorsk with the help of Rashnikov's immense investment, was slipping away before they even had gotten to taste the fruits of their labor.

Velichkin and Rashnikov, who had added team president to his role as chairman of the board of the factory, talked it over. They would offer Evgeni a one-year contract worth a reported $3.45 million, which would be the highest in the Russian Super League for that season and more than he would make for the Penguins, to unleash him as a star for Metallurg. And after that magical year in Magnitogorsk, they would celebrate his departure to the NHL with a ceremony for the team's fans.

This, they felt, was a fair deal -- the only way Evgeni's time with Metallurg could end.

"We wished to show our fans that diamond that we have created," Velichkin says. "What is it to grow a player? It is easy to grow one tennis player. You need to provide one athlete nutrition and gear, have one coach and have a field to play.

"To grow one good player in hockey, you have to be training 25 people on the team. You need to go on trips and play games with other teams. You must give them the equipment, which is deteriorating rapidly, feed them and keep the coaching staff. Parents for hockey school almost do not pay. The basic costs are borne by the hockey club and help from the plant. It's a very, very, very hard and long job.

"There is a total of 500 people in one year in the same school. All of this in order to make several top-tier players."

For weeks, Evgeni met almost daily with Velichkin and Velichkin's assistant. Natalia was also in frequent contact with Velichkin, who was trying to woo the parents as much as the son. On Aug. 6, with Evgeni stubbornly withholding his signature, Metallurg brought in the heavy artillery. A meeting was set at Rashnikov's office, and, at first, one of the most powerful men in Russia could not sway him. But, as the conversations changed locations to the Malkins' home and continued into the next day, Evgeni became worn down by the pressure. To Velichkin, the young man seemed confused.

Evgeni and his hometown had reached a tipping point. It was with their training that he became a master of this game, but now the globe was opening up to him. What was he supposed to want? To be the best for the city that made him? Or to simply be the best?

"It was big stress," Evgeni recalls. "I understand the general manager was doing his job. He wants me to stay in my hometown. But maybe he did too much. He came to my house, he talked to my parents. It was a little bit much."

Evgeni couldn't have understood why he meant so much to Metallurg. Early in the morning of Aug. 7, he signed the contract, but there was no sense of relief, only the feeling that control of his future had been stripped from able hands. Weren't those days supposed be over?

"On this night," Evgeni texted Velichkin's assistant, "you killed my dream."

Days later, he flew to Helsinki, Finland, for the team's preseason camp, seemingly ready to give one final season to the people of Magnitogorsk.

But Evgeni and Barry, his agent, had hatched a new plan, spawning a series of events befitting a Cold War fantasy. When Evgeni landed in Helsinki, Barry was there waiting for him at customs. They snuck away and hid out for a few days in an apartment, until Evgeni could go to the U.S. embassy and apply for a visa. When Evgeni and Barry made their escape to Los Angeles, Velichkin was enraged.

"This is pure sports terrorism," he said then.

The hurt was profound. This was what Magnitogorsk got for all of its time and energy, for its willingness to let its best player leave for foreign fame and riches the next season? Metallurg would sue the Penguins and the NHL, making the point that the Pittsburgh club had not invested anything in Evgeni yet somehow got the finished product free of charge. Velichkin wanted some compensation, anything to ease the pain. But there would be no monetary salve for this wound.

Back in Magnitogorsk, Vladimir and Natalia Malkin were as surprised as everybody else by Evgeni's bold departure. They knew nothing of it, and now they were left with their younger son's parting gifts: a sparkling new house and a rambunctious puppy named Geoffrey who, truth be told, they never even wanted.

A joyful reunion

Magnitogorsk does not stop moving forward, the key strand of its industrial DNA. Since Evgeni Malkin left this place eight years ago, Metallurg has won a Kontinental Hockey League championship and christened a new arena, while the factory proudly claims that a bachelor's degree is now mandatory to be considered for employment. Thousands of jobs exist here with responsibilities that couldn't have even been conjured a decade ago.

Evgeni does not stop either. He wants more Stanley Cups, and an Olympic gold medal, which he'll heartily pursue on home soil during the next two weeks in the Sochi Winter Games. In Pittsburgh, where he is known affectionately as "Geno," he has made a life for himself. When Vladimir and Natalia visit, they are treated like celebrities and cheered when their smiling faces flash on the big screen, and two worlds can be merged with the help of Natalia's borscht.

Evgeni and Magnitogorsk made up quickly. It's hard to stay mad at someone you love. After his dominant first season in the NHL, Velichkin met him at the airport when he returned to Magnitogorsk. They hugged, attempting to put any bitterness behind them.

And two years later, Evgeni would come home that summer with the ultimate gift. He decided to spend his one day with the Stanley Cup in Magnitogorsk. That night, Zaitsev, his friend, threw Evgeni a party at his nightclub that was attended by more than 700 people.

"He joked, 'I'm surprised that I have so many friends in Magnitogorsk. When I left, there were less,' " Zaitsev says.

Evgeni may have bought an apartment in Moscow, where he spends the bulk of his offseason, but when the threat of a NHL lockout loomed in 2012, he never considered playing anywhere in Russia other than Magnitogorsk.

For 37 games, he terrorized the KHL, scoring 23 goals with 42 assists, entertaining sellout crowds every night while showing the strength of Magnitogorsk manufacturing. Thanks to the NHL's labor foibles, Metallurg finally got back some royalties from its hit single.

"It was a joy not only to Magnitogorsk," Velichkin says. "It was a joy for all of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Czech Republic. Because every game had a full stadium. After the game, there was always a huge amount of fans waiting for Malkin, wanting pictures, autographs. Sometimes, we even had to hide Malkin, look for another entrance to the stadium."

Evgeni lived at home, with his parents and brother, and, of course, Geoffrey, who got a chance to bond with his original owner.

"When he was small I loved him so much," Evgeni says. "Now he's big, and when I'm back, he forgets me and starts to jump on me. I'm a little bit scared."

Evgeni's presence has grown, too. He left for Pittsburgh a boy, Velichkin says, and has come back a man. Along the way, hockey lovers everywhere got to learn of Magnitogorsk.

"I'm a lucky guy," Evgeni says.

But how does he show his appreciation? Ivan Semochkin, his former youth teammate, can tell you more than most.

In November, Semochkin's wife, Larisa, was diagnosed with blood cancer. She went to Germany for tests, and to have the treatments she needed would cost 150,000 euros (about $205,000). Ivan went to work in Magnitogorsk, putting out feelers all over town. The team and the factory were willing to help, but time was running out, and the Semochkins still needed $1 million rubles (about $30,000).

Semochkin had heard that Evgeni was very generous with people back home. He had not spoken to Evgeni in nearly a decade, but he did not know where else to turn. He got Evgeni's cell phone number and texted him the story. With two days remaining before Larisa would have to return to Russia without having the surgery she needed, putting her life in danger, Ivan got a text message from Evgeni.

"Check bank account," it said

The money was all there.

"Fiction," Ivan says, shaking his head months later, with a wife in remission and a happy 1-year-old daughter, Lubov, climbing all over him.

"For me," Larisa says, "this story is like a fairy tale."

Because of stories like this, the people here now understand that, sometimes, a native son has to be set free. It's the hopeful lesson of today's Magnitogorsk, embodied in the pioneering steps of a boy named Malkin, who like them was raised in the shadow of the mountain.

 

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. Interviews in Russia were translated with the assistance of Anton Chaika of Magnitogorsk.

 

 


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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