The visit was primarily to reach out to the Penguins star, who did not emulate his Conn Smythe year last season. It is interesting to note that the Columbus Blue Jackets reached out to Nikita Filatov(notes) the same way when one of the team coaches traveled to Moscow to meet with the young star.
As a part of the trip, both Bylsma and Malkin met with Russian Penguins fans in Moscow. The coach learned a lot of Russian words, but only shared words like "thank you," "hockey stick" and "a nerd."
At least that's what he believes the Russian word "ochkarik" means -- it actually means a person who wears glasses, but it's true that it is also a slang for nerds. Bylsma shared that some players he played with back in the day used to call him that in Russian. "I think they meant 'nerd' and not the 'smart man with glasses,'" Bylsma laughed.
Last year the Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL teamed up for a new unprecedented radio project - a program called "NHL in Russian." Hosted by Oleg Mejeritski and George Birman (Alyonka Larionov was also one of the hosts before moving on to other opportunities) and with contributions from yours truly, the radio show provides interviews, news and insight for Russian NHL fans.
The show's George Burman spoke with Coach Bylsma about the trip, the Penguins' upcoming season, Malkin without teammate and countryman Sergei Gonchar(notes) and other topics. Here is a transcript of that interview:
Q. Why did you decide to go to Moscow?
BYLSMA: Well, just as we wound down the season and talked about some of the things that we wanted to get better at next season and what we needed to do for next year in different areas like power play for some of our players, I thought it was important to make an effort to go see Geno. This is a season for Geno to get back to the season he had two seasons ago when he led the league in scoring.
Going to see Geno, going to see where he is from, spending some time was an important thing. Going to Moscow was kind of reaching out to where Geno started, where he grew up... Not where he grew up, but his country and where he is training this summer. That was the reason.
Was this your first trip to Russia?
As a kid growing up in hockey, the Red Army and then Russian players as they came over to North America where they played pro hockey more and more, there is always an interest in Russia and Moscow in particular. Occasionally you used to see the Red Army, Dynamo, Spartak come over and play over here in North America, and I was always interested and Russia was always a little mysterious. And when I had the opportunity to go over, I was really excited about it.
Were you able to see much?
Not much with all the smog going on, the fires and the smoke in the air. You come into a new place, you'd like to see from the airplane the surrounding area, and we weren't able to see that. Just to get an understanding of what Moscow was like was interesting... Moscow was much bigger than I anticipated. I didn't know what to expect. I had the vision of Moscow being the Red Square, of Kremlin, and not so much a huge city. And Moscow is a huge city.
Before your visit, did you even know there was such a big Russian fan club of the Penguins?
That was a big surprise.
The big surprise was that it wasn't necessarily centered around Evgeni Malkin or Sergei Gonchar, but these fans have been Pittsburgh fans for many, many years, long before [Malkin and Gonchar] came along. And they tell me they will be Penguins fans no matter what. That's their team, that's the team they will follow.
To see a group of guys who tell me about long nights of watching games from 3 in the morning till 6 in the morning -- they showed me pictures of them sleeping on their couches at the end of those games because it's just too late in the morning -- I was really fascinated to see that there was a fan base of not only the NHL, but specifically of the Penguins in Russia was kind of cool.
How did you like the party with those Russian Penguins' fans?
We had an afternoon together talking about hockey, and they had Penguins shirts and T-shirts on. And they were talking about the games they had come to, talking about when they were watching the playoffs, talking about the power play... It was just really fascinating to see how in-depth knowledge they had of our team, how they'd seen us play, where they'd seen us play and what they were doing when we won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago.
It was great time, a lot more English than I had anticipated speaking with the people in Russia. It was a really neat experience.
What was Geno like as an interpreter?
[Laughing] Geno wasn't the best interpreter. But he was definitely involved in talking. I don't speak any Russian, so to have Geno there, to have to lean on Geno, to listen to Geno was almost the total opposite of when he is here. He understands and speaks English fine now, but now I just can imagine what it was like when Geno came here originally and didn't understand much, and wasn't able to have a full conversation.
Speaking of Malkin, what do you expect from him as a coach in the upcoming season?
The one thing that's real evident when you coach Geno: He is very much about the success of our team, wants to help us win more Stanley Cups, and sometimes he takes it upon himself, and he takes it hard when we don't win and when he doesn't do well to help us win.
I really would just want Geno to play his game. He is such a great player and he can add so much to a game if he just goes out and concentrates on doing his best and being a part of our team, he is going to help us win more than our fair share of games and to help us where we want to go -- which is back to winning another Stanley Cup.
That's what we are hoping for from Geno this year. He doesn't need to be a hero, he doesn't need to put on a Superman's cape. He just needs to play great hockey he is capable of.
Do you think not having Sergei Gonchar around anymore will somehow affect Malkin? Or is he ready to be around on his own now?
I think this question is easier answered now than it was four years ago or three years ago.
Geno moved out of [Gonchar's house], he is on his own, he has other good friends on the team. And that's a big part of the answer to this question. We're all going to miss Sergei Gonchar. We are all going to miss 55 on the ice. Geno, probably, a little more because of the language and the friendship, and going out to dinner with him, those types of things. But I also think Geno is at a point that his English and his career in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins... He is a part of this team, and not just a side guy to Sergei Gonchar.
So, we will miss Gonchar, Geno will miss him, but I think he is ready and able to move by that and even grow a little bit more by not having Sergei here anymore.
Do you plan on going back to Russia again?
Well, I always had a goal to go there. I always thought it would be hockey that brought me there. I guess it was: to go see Geno. I think, really, with the Olympics being in Russia [I am] hoping, and, possibly, with my goal to be a coach for the US Olympic Team.
I would like to go back and be a part of a hockey tournament. And with the Olympics there hat's something that's definitely one of my goals to go back with the US Olympic Team.