March of the Penguin

PITTSBURGH – The Russian hockey star was missing.

In August, after his team landed in Helsinki, Finland, Evgeni Malkin vanished. His coaches were concerned, but they also were suspicious. Very suspicious.

Malkin, 20, was considered the best player in the world playing outside of the National Hockey League, and the NHL had every intention of bringing him to the United States. The Russians had other plans. Suddenly he was missing and at the center of hockey's Cold War.

With hints of Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe against a lectern and Ronald Reagan branding the former Soviet Union the Evil Empire, the two powers clashed. The NHL wants Russia's top young hockey players. Russian hockey officials want to be compensated. Butting heads and issuing veiled threats, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the intrigue surrounding Malkin's whereabouts deepened.

His Russian team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, had flown to Finland on Aug. 12 for a training trip. Only weeks earlier, Malkin had signed a one-year contract with the team reportedly worth $3.4 million. But between the time the plane landed in Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and the time members of the team gathered their bags, Malkin disappeared.

"Somehow we lost him," the team's coach told reporters. "He's gone."

Outside of Metallurg team officials, no one was more anxious to find Malkin than the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins selected him with the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, and they knew they had a potential superstar. In the 2006 Winter Olympics, Malkin played for Russia against the world's best players, and he emerged as the team's best player. Moreover, the owners – led by Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux – were in the process of selling the team. Surely the team's value would increase if they had Malkin.

But now he had gone AWOL, and his U.S.-based agents claimed they had no idea where he was.

Most likely, he had slipped away as part of a plan. But people began to worry. What if the Russians found him before he found a way out of the country? What if someone tried to exact retribution against his family? What if …

At last, Malkin's agents announced he was "safe." But they disclosed no further details. The Russians were furious. Penguins fans were abuzz. Malkin sightings became a staple of the local sports talk radio shows in Pittsburgh.

At last, after five days of speculation, Malkin's agents announced the Russian star was in the United States and provided details of his escape. In Finland, Malkin had met one of his agents near the airport and holed up in an apartment. He had his passport but still needed a visa. He called no one – not the Penguins, not his friends, not even his parents – before he made it to the U.S. embassy and got his paperwork.

From there it was off to the United States, where the agents said he arrived safely and had proof – the 6-foot-3, 185-pound center in the flesh. He was in Southern California, alternately wearing flip flops and ice skates and working out with the Los Angeles Kings while his agents and Penguins officials began finalizing the details of a contract.

The hunt was over, but the battle raged.

Malkin was relieved to hear Metallurg officials had called his family but made no threats. Instead, they directed their ire at the Penguins and the NHL.

"The Americans' arrogance is beyond any bounds," the team's general manager, Gennady Velichkin, told the Russian media. "This is the theft of the century. They don't care that Malkin is Russia's national treasure.

"We must sue not only Pittsburgh but the entire National Hockey League and its whole arrogance. The NHL must receive a total condemnation from the entire sporting world."

Retorted Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "The days of involuntary servitude are behind us. … At the end of the day, players are going to play where they want to play."

Beyond the rhetoric, the argument was over money. In 2005, the NHL had signed a player-transfer agreement that obligated it to pay $200,000 to an international club anytime it signed a player from the team's roster. The rationale was that the international club that developed the player deserved compensation, and Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland ratified the agreement. Russia was the lone holdout.

Russian officials argued $200,000 was grossly inadequate and suggested a player such as Malkin should command $2 million in transfer fees. European soccer teams regularly paid millions of dollars – in some cases upward of $20 million – to obtain players from other clubs. And just last week, the Boston Red Sox bid $51 million for the right to negotiate with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, and that money will go to the pitcher's Japanese club if the Red Sox and Matsuzaka strike a deal.

The NHL told Russian officials to take or leave the $200,000 offer. We'll see you in court, the Russians countered, filing a lawsuit in a New York court.

Few know the details of Malkin's escape, or what Malkin thinks of the lawsuit, and no one in the media is about to find out. Last Wednesday, Malkin sat in front of his locker in Pittsburgh and through an interpreter answered questions, except for those that dealt with his escape or the lawsuit that threatens to derail his NHL career.

He likes comedies and saw the movie "Borat" but didn't find it particularly funny.

He likes to drive fast, faster than the local speed limits allow.

His name is pronounced Ev-GEN-ee, with a hard "g." But you're free to call him Geno, like his new teammates do.

He thinks he'll like American women, but the language barrier has kept him from mingling. Will that provide incentive to learn English? He said a few Russian words. The interpreter grinned. Malkin grinned wider.

"He says 'of course,' " the interpreter confirmed.

If jersey orders are any indication, the women will be lining up soon.

"We can't keep his jersey stocked," said Chris Trechi, the warehouse manager. "We get them in and they're gone."

On June 9, the day Malkin signed his contract with the Penguins, the team began taking orders for Malkin's No. 71 jerseys – not just from Penguins fans in Pittsburgh, but from fans in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Japan and Russia. They struggled to fill all of the orders and keep enough jerseys stocked – and that was before he took the ice for his first official game, before he astonished his teammates and fans alike.

Malkin took the NHL by storm. He scored in his first game, scored in the next and kept on scoring, becoming the first player to tally goals in his first six career games since the NHL's inaugural season in 1917-18. He also provided the most compelling highlight of the season.

In a game against the New Jersey Devils, Malkin took a pass from Sidney Crosby at the blue line, squeezed between two defenders, rushing toward the goal on the left side of the net. Dead end. Martin Brodeur, one of the league's top goalies, had the angle blocked as Malkin moved in.

Then, magic.

Swiftly, Malkin moved the puck across his body, left to right, and used his reach to flip a backhanded shot past Brodeur. The goalie was stunned. So were more than 17,000 fans in Mellon Arena who actually seemed to pause in astonishment before celebrating the goal. For his part, the typically mild-mannered Malkin pounded the glass in triumph. His teammates mobbed him, with a TV microphone picking up Crosby's hysterical laughter and another teammate screaming, "Holy s---, Geno."

Lemeiux, who'd been watching the game on TV at home, said he literally leapt off of his couch when Malkin scored the goal, the clincher in a 4-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils and the new highlight-reel favorite in Pittsburgh. With his sturdy build, soft touch, long reach and uncanny awareness on the ice, Malkin has begun drawing comparisons to Lemeiux, the greatest player in Penguins history and one of the greatest in NHL history.

"He has that kind of talent," said John LeClair, a Penguins winger in his 17th season in the NHL. "There's a lot of great things that can be expected of him."

Nils Ekman, a winger who has played on Malkin's line, marvels at the Russian's knack for "solving problems" on the ice. If a defenseman suddenly appears in his path, Malkin usually finds a way around him.

"How he reacts and how he does things on the ice," Ekman said, shaking his head. "He's pretty unique."

But Penguins general manager Roy Shero, worried about mounting expectations, said of the comparisons to Lemeiux, "I don't think it's fair."

Funny. Fairness was the central issue in the dispute between the NHL and Russian hockey officials.

Was it fair that the Penguins had signed Malkin to a three-year contract worth about $1 million a year – as well as bonuses that could earn him more than another $1 million and put him in position to make as much as $10 million annually after three seasons – only weeks after Malkin had walked out on his team with a hastily written two-week notice? Was it fair that the NHL was offering only $200,000 in compensation for Malkin or any other Russian who chose to play in the NHL even after a Russian team had spent years and countless dollars developing the player? Was it fair to force Malkin to adhere to his contract with the Russians even though he claimed he was pressured to sign the contract and team officials withheld his passport until they traveled to Finland?

As NHL and Russian hockey officials argued those points through the media, the case made its way through the court in New York. Malkin had other things to worry about, like how to communicate with his new teammates (only one of whom, defenseman Sergei Gonchar, spoke Russian) and how to deal with reporters who gathered around him with those bright TV camera lights and tape recorders every time he scored yet another goal. Also, he had to deal with his first serious injury, hurting his shoulder in a collision with LeClair in an exhibition game.

As Malkin began his rehab, NHL officials and the Russians continued their feud.

"They all like to talk about democracy, the American way, and then they shamelessly steal our best players," Metallurg's general manager told the media. "This is pure sports terrorism.

"Don't forget, Malkin is a young kid. He is still very naive, and it was easy for them to get into his head all that stuff about the American dream and how great the NHL is."

Fired back the NHL's deputy commissioner in an email to the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Russian clubs need to understand the consequences of their reluctance to enter into a mutually acceptable framework for player transfers."

When the Globe asked Daly to clarify what he meant by "consequences," Daly wrote, "Continually losing players with no compensation."

The lawsuit sought to force Malkin to live up to his contract with Mettalurg and bar him from playing for Pittsburgh. But for the moment, he still belonged to the Penguins, whose doctors said Malkin would need to sit out four to six weeks after dislocating his shoulder.

That gave him time to adjust to the new culture.

Malkin moved in with defenseman Sergei Gonchar and enjoyed the Russian soups Gonchar's wife cooked. He watched TV and movies in an attempt to develop his English and expanded his vocabulary when Gonchar's 4-year-old daughter came home from school with new words. He also went shopping for a car, ready to take on the roads of Pittsburgh.

Leaning toward a Porsche, Malkin eventually settled on a Range Rover – though it was hard to tell. One day, Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' other young star, decided to take his new teammate to dinner. Follow me, Crosby said, as the two drove toward a restaurant near the airport.

Next thing Crosby knew, Malkin sped by in the Range Rover.

"And he had no idea where he was going," Crosby recalled with a grin.

Through an interpreter, Malkin said he's trying to get used to the slow drivers in Pittsburgh. Gonchar, his Russian teammate, said he is trying to get Malkin to slow down.

"I told him he's not in Russia anymore," Gonchar said.

But it has been unclear if Malkin would be forced to go back if he intends to play hockey.

Penguins officials said they're amazed at Malkin's easygoing manner. Autograph signings. Public appearances. Interviews. He has agreed to every request.

He still is struggling with the language barrier. On a recent night, a microphone during the broadcast of the Penguins game picked up an exchange on the team bench as Crosby diagrammed an intricate play for Malkin on a dry-erase board. Malkin looked to Gonchar for an explanation.

Those who speak Russian said this is what Gonchar offered: "Just get (expletive) open, and he'll get you the (expletive) puck."

Seems to be working, too. Malkin missed the first four games of the season with the dislocated shoulder, but he has shown no ill effects from the layoff. After 15 games on the ice, Malkin is second on the team in goals (nine) and points (18) behind Crosby. With the Penguins off to a 10-7-2 start a year after finishing 22-46-14, it is clear Malkin has picked up Pittsburgh's system. He also is picking up English, perhaps faster than he let on.

After Malkin tied the NHL record with goals in his first six games – the scoring spree ended in his seventh game – a Penguin official explained to Malkin that he needed to do a conference call with reporters and sign some memorabilia when Malkin suddenly interjected.

"I want pizza," he said with a grin.

"So we got him pizza," said Jennifer Bullano of the Penguins media relations department. "And he ate it between the conference call and signing autographs.

"That's his fallback line. I want pizza."

But Malkin didn't look hungry after practice last Thursday. He looked nervous, Gonchar said – and understandably so.

Attorneys representing the NHL, Penguins and the Russian team were set to meet that day in a New York courtroom. The judge was set to hear a motion for a temporary injunction that would bar Malkin from playing with the Penguins until Malkin fulfilled his contract with the Russian team or the team agreed it adequately had been compensated.

The judge heard two hours of arguments. Back in Pittsburgh, waiting for the news, minutes felt like hours.

Later that day, Malkin and the Penguins got word from their attorneys: The judge had ruled in Malkin's favor. Metallurg's motion for a temporary injunction hinged on proving Malkin's departure had resulted in irreparable harm to the club. But the judge said evidence indicated the Russian team was looking for financial compensation, undermining the foundation of their argument – and perhaps the entire lawsuit.

The attorney for Metallurg did not say whether the Russian club intends to pursue the matter. But the ruling wiped the anxiety from Malkin's face.

The next day, instructed by his agents, Malkin did not address the ruling. But after practice, his manner said as much as words could have. He threw a ball of tape back and forth with one of his teammates as if it were an oversized spitball and laughed loudly while talking across the locker room with Gonchar.

On Saturday night, he had an assist in the Penguins' 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers. Celebrating with his teammates on the ice, Malkin looked like a big, happy kid, a rising star on a rising team, a 20-year-old who, whether he's on the ice or behind the wheel of his Range Rover, has no intention of slowing down.