Those Russians cheering No. 71 are mom, dad
Vladimir and Natalia Malkin support their son, Evgeni, at Mellon Arena during game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Thursday.
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Imagine a man who provides for his wife and family by working in a gritty, sprawling steel and iron works along a river. He passes along his love of sports to a son who embraces working-class values and excels to the point that he plays professionally for the Steelers and one day captures the fancy of Pittsburgh.
This tale is not set in a mill town of Southwestern Pennsylvania but in the Ural Mountains of the Chelyabinsk Oblast region of Russia. It's not a work of fiction by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, but it's the real story of hockey prodigy Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins.
Fans appreciate Evgeni Malkin for winning the National Hockey League scoring title this year and earning consideration as the league's most valuable player, plus for being the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday and moved on to round two.
But to have legions of the citizenry, including a healthy portion of the female population, walking around with the Malkin name and/or number on their jerseys -- plus on their banners and posters -- takes some getting used to for a couple visiting the city to cheer on their son.
"I never in my life thought that so many people would be wearing No. 71 or getting their faces painted. I never thought I would see that," Natalia Malkin said before a recent playoff game at Mellon Arena.
Natalia and Vladimir Malkin have been swept along in their son's stardom. When they come to towns for games, the cameras find them and flash their pictures on the arena scoreboard. Fans migrate to their section and take their snapshots.
"Everybody must like us. We have our pictures taken so much," Mrs. Malkin said, laughing.
If sports has a way of making the world a smaller place, consider the story of a hockey player who could be called The Iron City Kid in two cities. One place is on the far side of what used to be the Iron Curtain, and people in his adopted hometown, while no longer a steel center, drink a local beer called Iron City.
The Malkins hail from Magnitogorsk, which roughly means Iron City. It's named for Magnitnaya Mountain, which was almost pure iron ore until it was mined out to feed steelmaking. The city is the home of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, which came into existence along with the city in 1929 under a five-year plan of Josef Stalin.
During World War II, the steel for half of the T-34 battle tanks that turned back the German army was made in Magnitogorsk. At the same time, Pittsburgh became known as the Arsenal of Democracy for churning out the armor and shells that defeated the Germans on the Western Front.
Just about everybody in Magnitogorsk, which has a population of about 420,000, either works in steel production or an industry that supports it. That includes Vladimir Malkin, a machine inspector at the factory.
The Malkins don't speak English and most Pittsburghers don't speak Russian, which sets up something of a Berlitz Wall. But George Birman, an employee of the Penguins, translated during a recent interview.
Driven by a love of sport, the elder Mr. Malkin skated as a defenseman for the city's hockey team before he served a mandatory stint in the Red Army. Over time, he passed along the fundamentals of skating and hockey to his son.
"I put Evgeni on skates when he was 3 years old," he recalled. "Those skates are completely different from what kids wear today. The blades were much longer, and the boot was rougher in workmanship."
Mr. Malkin sees a connection between the lessons learned on those rudimentary skates and how graceful and forceful his son is in professional hockey.
"I think he's such a good skater because of that," his father said. "If I knew he would one day play in the National Hockey League and do what he's doing, I definitely would have saved them."
Those who evaluate hockey talent in Russia -- and later scouts from all over the world -- saw greatness in the angular teen. In addition to representing his country on the international stage, Evgeni -- known by his Pittsburgh-given nickname of Geno -- was a mainstay on his hometown's professional hockey team. He played for the Magnitogorsk Metallurg, which translates into Steelers.
After being drafted by the Penguins, and after clearing up a tangle by jumping from his home team to come to the United States three seasons ago, Geno has become one of the world's elite players.
He beat out countryman Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals to win the NHL scoring title this season. And he combines with Sidney Crosby, himself a scoring champion and MVP, to give the Penguins two of the best players in the world.
It is no coincidence that the Penguins had never defeated the Flyers in a playoff series until last year. But led by a core of young talent, the Penguins accepted handshakes from the Flyers on home ice last season and were on the receiving end of congratulations on Saturday on Philadelphia ice, which is one of the most hostile environments for a visiting team.
The Malkins, however, don't get swept away by all the adulation. In fact, it makes them a bit uncomfortable when so much attention is directed at their son.
"I raised my son not as a star but as a regular person. For me, he's the same as everybody else," Vladimir Malkin said. "People come up to us and tell us how great he is. I don't like to hear all of that. I want him to be himself."
The Malkins are elated that their son, who recently bought a home in this area, landed in Pittsburgh.
"It's one of the great cities we've been to," Mrs. Malkin said. "It's so pretty, and everybody is friendly and helpful. The fans are amazing. I've never seen anything like this in my life."
Magnitogorsk is 10 time zones ahead of Pittsburgh, so a game that would start at 7 p.m. at Mellon Arena would begin at 5 a.m. there.
"When we watched from home, we'd get up at 4 in the morning to make sure we saw the games when they were on TV," Vladimir Malkin said. "Now that the Penguins are in the playoffs, they are watching as much as they can back home. The entire city is behind him."
The Magnitogorsk Metallurg played some big games in the Continental Hockey League, and the Russian national teams are fierce competitors on the international stage.
But there is something special about the NHL playoffs.
"We have been to games in the regular season, but it's a completely different time right now. Nothing compares to what's going on right now," Vladimir Malkin said. "Of course, we are very excited and very happy for Evgeni. Hopefully, he can continue doing the same things deeper into the playoffs."
First Published April 27, 2009 12:00 am