I spent a few days this past week talking with many people for a feature on Penguins C Evgeni Malkin, who appears poised for a career-best season – no small thing given he has twice posted 100-point seasons, won a scoring title and is a two-time runner-up for the NHL’s MVP award. Of all the people with whom I spoke, one person interested Malkin most. That person was a fellow Russian and his idol, Igor Larionov.
Before interviewing Malkin I handed him my Blackberry to show him an email of the transcribed interview I conducted with Larionov earlier this week.
“It’s tough still to read a book in English, but shortly I can do that too,” Malkin said, though he did not struggle to comprehend the words from Larionov on the Blackberry screen.
One quote particularly struck Malkin.
“Geno makes people understand the game of hockey because he makes teammates better,” Larionov said.
A wide smile overtook Malkin upon scrolling past that quote.
“Teammates,” Malkin said. “I like what he (said) there.”
Portions of the Larionov interview that did not make into my Sunday blowout on Malkin:
RR: If Malkin re-establishes himself as one of the NHL’s elite players, what will that do for the perception of Russian hockey on a global level?
IL: When you have a big superstar in the NHL it makes a huge impact in Russia. It makes a big impression on Russians globally if, as it looks like, Evgeni is back at top of his game. It will be big for Russian hockey because the NHL is the best league in the world and for him to again be one of the best players should open doors, hopefully, for other younger Russians.
RR: Malkin is often compared to Alex Ovechkin, but they seem to be completely different people. Still, if they are rivals that means they are equals as superstars, and doesn’t Russian hockey benefit most from that?
IL: They are different players. If you have a profile globally of a Russian player, Alex is that guy. He is in the public eye. Geno looks like a different guy to the public. He is friendly, quiet and doesn’t want to be in the public with his life. But Russian kids see a smart, true professional.
RR: Malkin seems like a classic Russian player – humble, team-oriented and his own harshest critic. Do you see him as a throwback to the Russian stars of your day?
IL: Geno makes people understand the game of hockey because he makes teammates better. To me there is a certain way to accomplish fame and Evgeni has been doing this for years. When a player works hard and uses his skill and mind to be a team player, to win – there is a reward that is greater than fame. The Stanley Cup is that reward; not status, not stats. The Cup is the best fame, and that is the one thing Evgeni always talks about. That is what I like most about him.
RR: He seems to be more open at this point than at any time during his NHL career. Is that a sign of maturity or just his natural personality coming out as he grows more comfortable with the North American culture?
IL: You don’t see him in the public eye in Russia. You don’t see him in the press there. He doesn’t seek fame. He hasn’t in North America. It is not him. But for him to be more comfortable now with English, he is a guy people will like more and more.
Check out my story on the “new” Geno in a few hours: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/