Evgeni Malkin uncomfortable as face of Sochi Olympics



SOCHI, Russia — Evgeni Malkin is everywhere. His hair is on television, hawking Head & Shoulders shampoo. His mug is on the side of a building, selling Samsung cell phones with the slogan “Note your dreams. Design your life.” His name is on the jersey of a young man named Sergei Kauzov, a Sochi native who waited outside the Bolshoy Ice Dome Monday afternoon as Malkin and his Russian teammates practiced for the first time with the hopes of their country on their dandruff-free shoulders.

Malkin is, without a doubt, one of the faces of these Olympics. Yet, Pittsburgh’s quiet superstar wants to be able to cut off the spotlight when he feels like it. That is our “Geno,” and his essence was very much on display after the Russians’ hourlong skate.

As fellow Russian diva Alex Ovechkin moved his way from interview to interview, answering the same questions over and over again for different outlets with an easy smile, Malkin kept his head down and attempted to make it past Ovechkin without being detected, using “Ovi” like a human shield. But Ovechkin noticed Malkin trying to get away and said to him, “Geno!” Ovechkin urged him to come over and take a few questions. Malkin, clearly annoyed his escape had been thwarted, went through the motions. A Russian translation of what he said revealed very little about how he actually is feeling as these Sochi Winter Games come to life.

Dan Bylsma talks about U.S. Olympic hockey team

Penguins coach talks about the U.S. Olympic hockey team from Sochi. (Reuters video; 2/11/2014)

After talking briefly to his country’s hungry horde of journalists, he breezed by American reporters. “Tomorrow,” he said, but it was hard to think that was going to happen.

Malkin is happy to be in front of the cameras as long as he can cash in on the convergence of his fame with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of playing for a gold medal on his home soil. But, with the chance to address his country and ardent fans through the longing media, he reverted to his Pittsburgh form, with Ovechkin filling the role of Sidney Crosby.

In the Penguins locker room, it has worked out perfectly these past eight years — Crosby sitting there each day after practice, admirably doing the things a captain does, the things that Crosby appears born to do, while Malkin can do whatever he pleases.

And that’s been OK, in Pittsburgh, because Crosby can take it all. That it was the same way in Russia, where Malkin is beloved from his hometown of Magnitogorsk all the way to the Black Sea here in Sochi, came as a bit of a surprise.

Weeks before, back in Pittsburgh, Malkin spoke with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and opened a small window into his thoughts about playing for the Russian team, beginning with his first tournament with the national team as a teenager in 2003.

“I always love to represent my country,” he said. “It’s a big memory for me. I remember my first game in a Russian jersey, and I score goals. It’s a huge moment for me. I think I start to understand. I’m not just representing my hometown, I represent my country. It’s more pressure. I play harder. At 17 years old, playing first for the national team was a big, big story for me.”

When asked about the uniqueness of playing in the Olympics in Russia, he laughed.

“Of course, there’s Russian media and lots of commercials. Now, I think I don’t really understand how big because I’m here. It’s a little bit tough. I see the news, I see what’s going on in Sochi, but if I’m in Russia maybe I understand why it’s important.”

Malkin’s understanding had to be growing fast Monday. He and other NHL players arrived in the morning on a 10-hour flight from Newark to be greeted by hundreds of journalists at the Sochi airport. Then, they arrived at the Olympic Village and could see for the first time just how much President Vladimir Putin has invested in these Games being a success — the $51 billion number makes sense when one sees the remarkable facilities in Olympic Park.

Malkin’s parents, Vladimir and Natalia, have been in Sochi since last week. Friday, Natalia got a chance to run with the Olympic flame. They will be here to support him, just like in Vancouver and Turin. After Vancouver, when the Russians finished sixth, Malkin was as crushed as he has ever been by a hockey defeat, according to close friend, Andrei Zaitsev, who lives in Malkin’s hometown of Magnitogorsk.

The Russians have not won an Olympic gold in the post-Soviet era. This is a business trip for Malkin. He wants to win. Does talking to the press help with that? In his mind, absolutely not. So, yes, he’ll let Ovechkin handle that stuff.

And when Ovechkin was asked, like every other player who spoke Monday, what it would mean for Russia to win the gold medal, he said what everybody else likely was thinking:

“Mean gold only cost $50 billion.”

As for Malkin’s psyche, maybe the monologue from his Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial should suffice. A translation:

“At first I thought you don’t need anything but physical strength to win. When force is used against you, answer with bigger force. But later I started to understand that the real strength is in something else. It lies in the ability to use the pressure and not to give up under it; in the ability to recharge yourself with the help of fans’ energy. At home or away. For or against us. The louder the arena, the better I concentrate.

“The strength lies in approaching the Olympic Final just like any other game. Because it is in fact the case. Now I know for sure that winning starts from the inner spirit, a clean hair, and the confidence that accompanies all of it.”


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 10, 2014 11:04 PM

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