Malkin and family begin their Yinzerfication
By Rob Rossi, TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Penguins center Evgeni "Geno" Malkin was surprised to hear the words leave his mouth during a conversation two years ago with his father.
"We talked after my first year, and he asked how I like Pittsburgh," Malkin recalled Sunday, fewer than 48 hours after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. "'Pittsburgh is very good for me,' I tell him. Other cities in America are too big, so fast. Nice to see, not good to live. Pittsburgh is good place to live. Nice people. Helpful. Leave you alone, but also support you.
"'Pittsburgh is the place for me,' I tell him. Now he agrees."
Since 2006, Evgeni Malkin has matured from a shy 20-year-old with tons of potential into one of the National Hockey League's best offensive players. Now 22, he grew into manhood under Pittsburgh's lauded skyline.
Russia is his native land, but Pittsburgh is becoming home — even if he remains leery about slamming french fries and coleslaw onto a sandwich.
A lay of the local land as Malkin has come to know it: grocery shopping at Whole Foods in East Liberty; dining at Shadyside's Umi; shopping for clothes at Ross Park Mall; enjoying a night in South Side at Diesel; or watching from the kitchen of his Sewickley home as his mother, Natalia, prepares borscht.
The Yinzerfication of Malkin took another step when Malkin decided he wanted a Terrible Towel during the Steelers' Super Bowl run. But teammate Matt Cooke could not convince him to forgo the warmth of his living room for a seat in the cold at Heinz Field.
"Nowhere better for me to live and play," Malkin said before jetting to Las Vegas for the NHL Awards. Malkin was a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which hockey writers select, and Lester B. Pearson Award, which players determine.
"Pittsburgh loves sports," he said. "People cheer when you do good, and they try to help when you don't."
Another Pittsburgh convert is not surprised.
"Pittsburgh is a great place, and I think you'd find a lot of hockey players that think so," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, 21, who arrived from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 2005. "A lot of guys come from towns -- some of us in Canada, guys like Geno in Russia -- that Pittsburgh reminds us of in some way.
"It's probably the people here, who are great. That's what it was for me."
Vladimir Malkin, Geno's father, told the Tribune-Review this month that areas around Pittsburgh -- specifically communities such as Aliquippa -- reminded him of Russia's Magnitogorsk, the family's hometown.
Magnitogorsk is a mining town by the Ural River. It originally was intended to serve as Russia's version of Pittsburgh by Josef Stalin, who sought an industrial stronghold.
"Like ours, Pittsburgh is a steel town," Vladimir Malkin, a former steelworker, said through the Penguins' unofficial Russian interpreter George Birman. "Pittsburgh is bigger, more like a city than a town."
That, Natalia Malkin said, is what appeals to her son, who has spoken fondly of New York and Los Angeles.
"Geno likes big cities, but not too big like those -- not to live," she said through a translator. "Pittsburgh is best size for him, with good people like from back home in Russia."
Pittsburgh won favor with Evgeni Malkin immediately because Pittsburghers treated him like one of their own, according to close friend and Penguins teammate Sergei Gonchar.
Until last fall, Malkin lived with Gonchar and his family in Sewickley. He ate at restaurants they frequented, shopped where they shopped and knew what they knew about the city and region.
"We would be out, and people would come up to him to say hello," said Gonchar, who arrived in the United States in 1994 and owns homes here and outside of Miami.
"He had only been here for a few weeks, and everything was so very new to him, and I think he was surprised the fans here were so friendly. Now they don't bother him at all, other than to say, 'Good job, Geno.' He just fits in."
That is especially true at Diesel, a popular nightclub. Malkin enjoys that he is never the center of attention among fun-seeking fans who rarely disturb him.
People often recognize him when he shops for casual clothing at the mall. Penguins teammate Max Talbot said fans "always respect that he's trying to shop, just like them."
Malkin joked that nobody asks him to sign anything if he's carrying "bags in both hands."
At Japanese restaurant Umi, where Malkin prefers tartare-prepared dishes of salmon, yellow tail and toro, smaller and familiar crowds appeal to his reserved nature. Sous chef Jesse Wilson does not believe Malkin avoids attention because he remains uncomfortable with the English language.
Gonchar said he had played in North America nearly 10 years before he was comfortable speaking English in public. But he said Malkin could speak his second language fluently and still not feel comfortable at the head table.
"He's very shy, but that's because he's young," Wilson said. "The thing that sticks out to me is how polite he is to people when they do approach him. He's always saying thanks, and he seems genuinely happy -- maybe a bit embarrassed, too -- that so many people like him.
"And if he's awkward in a certain situation, people just go with it. Everybody ends up laughing about it a few minutes later because everybody that kid meets loves him."
The feeling is mutual, Malkin acknowledged.
But about those Pittsburgh-style sandwiches ...
"No, not for me, not yet," he said, smiling and insisting he means no disrespect to "those guys" at Primanti Brothers.
Vladimir Malkin was an instant fan of Pittsburgh's most famous sandwich, and Evgeni figures he'll become one eventually.
"Only been here three years," he said. "Maybe in a few more I can try one again. Then I can be a real Pittsburgh guy."