Puck Daddy - NHL

A friend from Russia is a big Evgeni Malkin fan, so visiting Mellon Arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins' game against the Detroit Red Wings offered a chance to pick up a Malkin hat he had requested.

For 20 minutes, we ran around the arena from gift shop to gift shop with no luck. Finally, we found a single Malkin hat, perhaps the last in the entire building. We asked a vendor why it was so difficult to find one, and were told they were all but sold out.

"What do you expect?" said the vendor. "The guy's so popular! He's the best in the league!"

Through 55 games, Malkin is arguably the best player in the NHL: leading the League with 80 points and on pace for the best offensive season of his career.

We caught up with Malkin after Sunday's game to discuss his growth as a player and a leader; the Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff hopes; his $1,000 bounty for a victory; the brutality of Flyers fans; his reconciliation and all-star prop comedy with Alex Ovechkin; and, perhaps most interestingly, why he doesn't understand why teammate Sidney Crosby is labeled as "some kind of 'mama's boy.'"

PD: We're doing this interview in Russian, which must be a nice change from your English-language interviews after games that some fans find amusing. How is your English coming along, and do you feel any pressure to learn it quickly?

MALKIN: To be honest with you, I don't feel any pressure. And the team is trying to help me out and try not to schedule too many [English language] interviews with me. I myself try to be on the sidelines and try to give interviews without being stressed and just trying to be comfortable. And once again, thanks to the team, they are helping me a lot. And it's not like there are 100 TV cameras in the locker room after the game surrounding me. I am taking it slow, but there is still visible progress.

You have been leading the league in points from the very start. That means that you should expect a lot of attention to you from the media.

But I still don't feel any pressure. Maybe that's what's helping me? I feel fine. Maybe the media does want more, but at the same time they realize that it's a little difficult for me right now.

You're on pace for a career-high in points this season. What's changed in your game?

I just switched the gear, bought a new car... But seriously, I don't know. Maybe I just gained a lot more experience. The first year was a bit tough for me, because the NHL was the new league foe me. The second year started off a bit tough also, but I started gaining more confidence as the season went on and that confidence slowly grew. Of course, there was Sid's injury, and that, perhaps, gave me even more confidence and experience, I also discovered new qualities within myself, perhaps, maybe even the leadership qualities. I also felt that all the guys started to look up to me. That's when it probably all started for me -- at the end of last season. And now I feel very confident.

How important to you is finishing first in scoring? Is this a goal of yours?

I am not going to lie, of course I want to finish first, and it is a goal. Why not? The season is shaping up not too bad for me so far. Of course I want to win individual prizes and win the Cup. I think every player thinks of individual prizes, myself included. But right now we have a difficult situation. We have to fight to make the playoffs. Maybe in this situation the points I get will be even more important for the team at this stage than they were in the beginning of the season.

Today's game against Detroit Red Wings was a repeat of the Stanley Cup final...

By 'repeat' you mean that we lost again?  Or our game hasn't changed in a year? [Malkin joked] 

I'll be honest with you that we really wanted to win tonight to continue our winning streak, since we had won two games in a row before this loss. We really need to get up to speed to make the playoffs. But Detroit got stronger, even though they do have all of the same players from last year. They did sign Hossa though. It's so tough to play against them.  We are just missing so many good players to injury, like Sergei [Gonchar] or [Ruslan] Fedotenko, who are both very good. Our team is a little weaker because of that.  But I don't think we are showing a bad game. 

Can you even imagine the Penguins not making the playoffs?

The season is not over yet, so I am not thinking about it. We just have to start winning. We haven't lost a chance to make it, we actually have plenty of chances to make the playoffs. The main thing for us is to get all guys healthy and get to the right level of play. That's what we are trying to do right now.

Isn't it a question of not making the playoffs but also making money in the playoffs?

It's too bad that we don't make money [in the playoffs]. (Laughs) Players don't make anything...  I am joking, of course. The playoffs are a different game and we want to get there of course. 

It's said there is a "Curse" on teams that lose in the Stanley Cup finals, that they never have success in the following season. Based on the tough season for the Penguins, are you starting to believe in these curses?

I understand the question, and it is a good question. Some say that the summer is short for the teams playing in the finals. But it was also short for Detroit. And look at them play?  Yes, the summer was short, but we have a young team. It is difficult to say how we are going to keep playing. But it is difficult to keep to our standards right now. We actually have to play better. That's why I hope this curse will not affect us in any way. We have to hope for the best. Is there a different way? We can't just stop playing because [of the curse], right?

Talk about last year's playoffs for a moment. After the check Mike Richards put on you during the Flyers series last year, were you injured and feeling the effects of that hit the rest of the playoffs?

No, there was no injury. I remember that everyone started saying that my game had changed. To be honest, after the playoff series against the Flyers I got sick a little bit, I got the flu. I didn't feel very well in the first two games against Detroit. Maybe that was the reason people talked? But there was no injury, no concussion or anything like that. I think the flu affected my game. Maybe I also got a little bit tired. All of that combined didn't help my game. I even missed one practice because of that. But no injury.

Not long ago ESPN had a survey where 24% of players surveyed said that the Philadelphia Flyers have the most disruptive fans. Have you ever been, even a little, afraid of Flyers fans? 

I agree with the players [who named Flyers fans]. I can't say that I am afraid of them though. Although I do remember one game in Philadelphia last year when we had popcorn thrown to our bench by Flyers' fans, other garbage. Thank god there were no bottles thrown. And their fans also jump on the glass behind the bench, or behind the glass. People don't behave that good there. I have never seen anything like this anywhere. And this survey showed that other players noticed it too. I am surprised by those fans. But I understand that they are just supporting their team. 

Do you just see them as being strange? Or do they unsettle you or put you under pressure in any way?

No, they don't put me under pressure. It's just not very nice when there is popcorn thrown on the bench, and it doesn't feel good to go out and play hockey after such things. No pressure, but such things are not enjoyable and are unfounded.

What surprised you the most about a Stanley Cup playoff run, in comparison to something like a world championship tournament?

I think they are very difficult to compare. This is because when from the quarterfinals of the World Championships forward each game is played until one mistake is made. It is similar to the NHL playoffs, because of one mistake you can lose a game and it can be very difficult to catch up. That's why it is more interesting to play in games when one mistake can mean so much, and you must not make that mistake. Everyone is just so focused during those games, and such games are just much more interesting. That's why I think the playoffs and World Championships are the same.

So many players left last year's Penguins team during the off-season. Which player do you miss the most, and why?

I think Hossa, of course, simply because he is such a great goal scorer. We are probably missing such a player right now, who can play great on his wing and tear through the opposition's defense. He also has great speed, and he scored like 30 goals already this season. We are missing a goal scorer similar to him, because we have great centers, all guys play a great passing game, but we just don't have a good finisher. 

So, why did he leave? Do you know?

I can't say because I didn't speak with him after he left. I read newspapers just like everyone else. He said that Detroit had a better chance of winning the Cup, and he wanted to win the Cup. As a player I understand him, because he is yet to win the Cup, and maybe he is thinking about it, just like everyone else is thinking about it.

But does that mean that the Penguins don't have a chance? Did it upset you that he said those things?

Well, it was upsetting, but he said Pittsburgh is a great team and he just saw Detroit's chances being better. That's what he thought and this is his opinion, that's all. 

I heard that during the second intermission of your game against the Tampa Bay Lightning you were trying to motivate your team by offering $1,000 to win the game ...

Wow! Who gave me up? (Laughing) How did this information spread? This only happened in the locker room behind closed doors.

You can forgive the source. 

Yes, it was true. I became $1,000 poorer, to be honest, and the guys started running [on the ice]. But I scored the winning goal, and I am now regretting it (Malkin joked). But money is not important, because other guys also put their money. What is important is that we won that game and that game gave us a lot of confidence. Maybe my money cheered the guys up a little bit? But I also tried to help with my play on the ice. 

Based on those results, it would only cost you about $42,000 for your team to go undefeated and win the Stanley Cup. So have you thought about doing this for every game?

If you start helping me [with the money], then of course I will start putting money up every game! Otherwise, no. But you don't win every time you put money on. It just happened that this time we won. But you are saying it in such a way as if it was the first time I did that in three years. That's not the case. This time it was $1,000, but sometimes we put less money up and we lose those games.  It doesn't depend on it. 

Did that money go to the team fund?

Yes. We either give it to our team doctors or physical therapists, or we all together as a team go out somewhere for dinner when we're on the road.  But the money is spent, it doesn't accumulate!

Why did you do it and not someone else? And why $1,000 and not $500?

The more the better for the team! We will have a great party soon, drink more expensive drinks! 

But putting money is a tradition. For example, some players put money when they are playing against the team from their home town. We also had the same pool going at the All Star game in Montreal. We got together with Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Kovalev and me. There was no fund. But we put $500 each for the person who will go deeper in the shootout challenge to collect. That's how I lost again and became $500 poorer. Kovalev won, because he scored on his shot and we didn't. He had a really good All Star game, to be honest! He collected $2,000 from us, now he will also sell the car [that Kovalev won as the All Star game MVP]!

Kovalev said that he would donate the money from the sale to a charity.  Do you give to any charity?

I am trying. This year I want to donate to an orphanage in my home town of Magnitogorsk. But here we also visit hospitals with the team. But I haven't done anything major yet.

But still, what you did in the locker room during the Tampa game was a great example of leadership. Do you hope one day to be a captain in the NHL like Ilya Kovalchuk is for the Atlanta Thrashers?

I think Kovalchuk also puts money up, it's just no one talks about it. As for captaincy, of course there are hopes. I just have to keep working hard on my game, play hockey, work on myself, and then one day why not?

That truce with Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals at the All Star game in Montreal is historic now...

Really? Will it be in history books now? Maybe now everyone around the world will make peace? Maybe the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation will finally sign the transfer agreement now? 

Was Kovalchuk instrumental in getting you and Ovechkin back on good terms during All-Star Weekend in Montreal? What role did he play, and why did you and Alex decide to end your feud?

We just finally got a chance to get together at the same time, to go out, to have dinner and to talk about everything. Until then we only spoke on the phone and a good opportunity to talk just wasn't there until the all-star game. Kovalchuk helped by stating his own opinion about our situation. We also spoke to each other candidly. We both realized that feuding didn't do any of us any good, we played together on the same team [for Russia] so many times. 

I had a chance to speak with Ovechkin about it and he said almost exactly the same thing...

We just have an agreement with him to say the same things! (Laughs)

That interview with Alex Ovechkin will be published soon in Sovetsky Sport. But one of the things he said was that despite you two being friends again, he can still hit you on the ice because it is still a game.

It's a good thing that he gives me a warning now! Thanks, Alex! But I don't get upset with anyone after being hit in a game. 

Did you feel the constant attention on your relationship with Ovechkin off the ice was a distraction?

Honestly, it did. It's just when everyone talks about the same topic over and over again it became too much. When someone comes up to you and asks about it, and then another one and another one asking the same thing it just becomes irritating. I think we both felt this way. It's just repulsive when you are asked the same questions over and over again.

Obviously, hockey fans loved the act you and Alex did during the skills competition. How did the hat and glasses routine come about?

I don't know who suggested the hat and glasses routine to him, but he came to me with this idea right before his turn in the skills competition. Actually, he approached Ilya Kovalchuk first, but for some reason he declined to participate. And then Ovechkin came to me and said 'Then it will be you.' And I said 'Why not?' But I think [the routine] was pretty funny. 

Since you two are now Russia's most famous comedy duo, and Ovechkin said that he won't participate in this skills competition anymore, maybe now he will put a goofy hat on you next time?

Yes, I would like to take part in such competition. Why not? It's such an interesting competition and I want to play with the puck and score a nice one. But I don't think I would come up with a show, I would probably give more emphasis on skill, maybe come up with some kind of a trick, but no hat.

Who do you think has better goal celebrations, you or Ovechkin?

I think Ovechkin does. No one jumps like him! I do jump on the glass sometimes, but he jumps higher! His legs are stronger!

Who will have more points at the end of their career: You or Ovechkin?

I think it will be me of course! Why should it be him? He'll get more goals, but I will beat him with assists!

Enough Ovechkin -- let's talk about Sidney Crosby for a moment. What's the most underrated or underappreciated part of his game?

Underrated? It is difficult to say.

Everyone speaks highly of his qualities. I don't know why people say that he is some kind of "mama's boy," that he cries on the ice. I think that this is not the case, simply because he gets hit a lot everywhere on the ice, everyone tries to hit him or hook him and tries to play physical against him. And he takes it all in and endures all that. I have never thought of him as being a "mama's boy, because it is fundamentally wrong and simply is not the case.

And I did see that ESPN survey where players said that Crosby complains to referees a lot. But he has to talk to referees because he is our captain. He has a strong character and a great determination. His character is underrated.

Why do you think some players believe that Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks is the better player than Crosby?

Some players? I think there was only one player who said that and others just repeated his words. I don't know why, but it's all a matter of taste and what player each one of them prefers. If I like how Sid plays, then I should be free to say that I like Sid. If Semin likes Kane as a player better than Sid, then why shouldn't he say that?  I think there should be absolutely no ill feelings about that. It's the media who hyped it all up because it involved a Russian.

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