Evgeni Malkin embracing rare 'special' chance to play at home in Russia

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

"V gostyakh khorosho, a doma luchshe." – Russian proverb

Translation: Visiting is good, but home is better.

MOSCOW – Just after 2 p.m. ET Friday, the NHL announced the cancellation of the schedule through Nov. 30. There will be no 82-game season. There may be no season at all.

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While the NHL lockout drags on, Evgeni Malkin is making memories at home in Russia. (Y! Sports)

The league and the players' association released dueling statements. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said: "We are profoundly disappointed." NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said: "This is deeply disappointing." But there is nothing that profound or deep about it. It is a fight over money and power. It is ridiculous and wrong.

You have to try hard to find something good about this lockout. You have to fly more than 4,500 miles from league headquarters in New York or union HQ in Toronto. You have to come to Moscow, go to a Soviet-era arena and squeeze into a frigid hallway just after 10 p.m. local time, as players lug their own bags through a thick postgame crowd and out the open door to the team bus.

At the exact same time the league and union were expressing their disappointment, Russian fans were expressing their happiness. This was not a charity game like the one that drew almost 12,000 on Friday night near Chicago, as nice as that was. No, this was real high-level hockey, right here, at home, featuring the NHL's reigning most valuable player, one of their own.

Two boys stood in front of the open door to the dressing room, wearing matching jerseys, craning their necks, sneaking peeks, clutching markers. A boy in a tan hat stood with an older man – maybe his father, maybe his grandfather – and suddenly they saw him.

"Evgeni Malkin!" the older man said, crouching down, pointing up.

Malkin had a goal and an assist in a 7-2 victory for Metallurg Magnitogorsk over Spartak Moscow, giving him nine points in his last three games in the Kontinental Hockey League.

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He couldn't leave the doorway as the fans pressed past the security guards and asked for autographs. He signed a Pittsburgh Penguins hat. He signed a KHL pennant. He posed for pictures and then more pictures, stopping every time he took a few steps.

When the crowd eventually thinned, he grabbed the hand of the boy in the tan hat and led him into the dressing room for a quick tour. The older man did not speak English, but he smiled at a North American reporter and held up his hand for a high five, and that said it all.

Finally, long after everyone else had gone, Malkin emerged with Sergei Gonchar, his teammate and mentor. Unlike the rest of the players, they had to cut through the benches, walk around the rink and use a side exit, lest they be mobbed by the fans still waiting outside in the wet cold behind a red metal barricade.

"It is special," Malkin said as they walked, with Gonchar translating. "It is something that not happen very often."

* * * * *

From a North American perspective, it happens too often. The last three times the NHL and NHLPA have negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, there has been a lockout. Three straight times, the season has been screwed up.

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Malkin is starring for his hometown team Metallurg Magnitogorsk. (Y! Sports)

And make no mistake, in many ways, the vast majority of European players would rather be playing in the NHL than the KHL or anywhere else right now. They are just visiting these leagues. There is a reason they choose to make Canada and the United States their adopted home – the best league, the best pay, the best life.

"NHL is NHL," Gonchar said.

But there is also a reason a few European players have threatened to stay home if the NHL cuts their pay dramatically, despite the legal problems that could pose if they are under contract, and it goes beyond labor-battle bluster. In North America, they feel like visitors culturally, and the NHL's advantage as a league, while still large, isn't quite as large as it used to be.

"Playing over here, it's much more enjoyable now than it was," said Gonchar, a 17-year NHL veteran, who spent 2004-05 with Magnitogorsk when it was a member of the old Russian Superleague. "To be honest with you, I'm enjoying it here. For me, it goes either way [if the entire NHL season is canceled]. I like it here. I enjoy my teammates. We have a great team. So I don't care."

And now think about this: What if the lockout drags on and Sidney Crosby finds a way to insure his 12-year, $104.4-million contract despite his concussion history? What if he leaves to play overseas in some other league in some other country for some other fans? Many North Americans – at least Canadians and Pittsburghers – would consider that a profound and deep disappointment.

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Well, why should Russians feel differently about their star Penguins center? Why should European fans feel differently about any of their players, who grow up here and develop here, then leave to play over there? From their perspective, this doesn't happen often enough.

"It's the only chance these people [have to see Malkin]," said Magnitogorsk coach Paul Maurice, one of two North American coaches in the KHL.

Malkin is not hurting. In the short term, he might be making even more money.

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Two youngsters waited with great anticipation to meet Malkin. (Y! Sports)

The KHL supposedly will pay only up to 65 percent of a player's NHL contract during the lockout. That means Malkin could make $5.85 million of his $9 million salary. But he is paying a far lower tax rate – 13 percent – and a KHL official said he has a bonus that could boost his net higher than it would have been in the NHL.

But there is more to the story.

The KHL business model is different than the NHL's. While the NHL and NHLPA fight primarily over the disposable incomes of North American fans, the KHL funds its operations primarily with sponsorship money – oil, gas, industry.

Tickets are cheap. To see Malkin play Friday night in Moscow, the most expensive seats were 1,200 rubles – less than 40 bucks. The least expensive tickets were 300 rubles – less than 10 bucks. There were maybe 4,500 fans in the seats.

Concessions are cheap. All they offered Friday night were coffee, tea, soda and water; chips, candy and meat-stuffed rolls. The most expensive item on the menu was 100 rubles – a little more than three bucks.

The math doesn't work, unless you factor in pride as a big part of the equation.

"We have an owner that loves the game of hockey and has always brought good players in," Maurice said. "For the people that work there. For entertainment. For them."

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All being equal, Malkin could have played elsewhere in the KHL. He could have played for one of the rich clubs in one of the glamorous cities. He chose Magnitogorsk, an industrial city of 440,000 people at the southern end of the Ural Mountains, an area rich in iron ore.

You could compare it to Pittsburgh, because it is a steel town the Soviets patterned after Pittsburgh and Gary, Ind. Just know it is not Pittsburgh, which has reinvented and redeveloped itself. One person who has traveled in the KHL described it as the top of the bottom four destinations.

To Malkin, though, Magnitogorsk is home. He was born there. He grew up there. He developed there. He played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk's junior and Superleague teams, spending two full years with the big club after the Penguins drafted him second overall in 2004. That's why he pulls rank and always takes the ice last for the Penguins -- right after Crosby, the captain. Even though he broke into the NHL in 2006-07, one year after Crosby did, he played professionally first.

"He played there as a youngster, and he goes on to become one of the best players in the world," Maurice said. "He had an opportunity to play in Moscow or St. Petersburg or one of these cities, and they can afford him. He goes back and he plays at home because it's the right thing to do, and that's all you need to know about him."

* * * * *

One day, when this is all over, Malkin will come back to North America. That will be good for Pittsburgh, for the Penguins, for the NHL and for him. When he won the Hart Trophy on June 21 in Las Vegas, he said: "I love my team. I want to be the best for 10 years."

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Malkin has nine points in his last three KHL games, continuing his MVP momentum from the NHL. (Reuters)

But that doesn't mean he can't love this in its own way, that this isn't one of those 10 years. After missing the second half of the 2010-11 season and the playoffs because of torn knee ligaments, Malkin rededicated himself and came back stronger than ever before – and he was pretty damn good before. He was determined to continue that momentum, be it in Pittsburgh or Magnitogorsk.

"He's more professional compared to three, four years ago," said Gonchar, who played for the Penguins from 2005-10. "He mature as a person, and I think that maturity help him to become a better player obviously. I haven't played with him the last couple years, but it seems to me like he was doing it back in NHL and now he's doing the same thing here."

There is a unique pressure playing at home in front of your family, friends and fans. Maurice said it affected Malkin early. Every time he touched the puck, he wanted to create something. That isn't as easy as it sounds in the KHL, despite the larger ice surface. The lesser talent level works both ways, and there is more clutching and grabbing. "It's actually in some ways a harder game for him to play here," Maurice said.

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But Malkin adjusted, and Friday night, he was a force. He wore the 'C,' because the usual captain was suspended for shoving an official, and he played hard. He threw a big hit by the Magnitogorsk bench. He forechecked. He buzzed around the net – one shot, and another, and another, on one shift – and looked to the rafters when somehow he didn't score.

Second period. Power play. Game tied, 1-1. The drum beats and the chanting and the singing stopped, as the Russian fans hushed and watched what North Americans see – or used to see – all the time.

Gonchar saucered the puck perfectly from the point to the right circle. Malkin took the pass and waited a beat, cradling the puck on his stick, still wearing his Penguins gloves and helmet. Then he scored his seventh goal of the season, ripping the puck past a defender and the goaltender, low inside the far post.

Malkin found himself surrounded by Russian reporters after the game, and he seemed a lot less shy in front of the TV cameras, answering question after question in his native language. Standing off to the side, Gonchar grinned.

"When you think about it, playing with the best player in the world, it's always enjoyable," he said. "It doesn't matter where you're playing."

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