The world knows Yevgeni Malkin as a three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time World Champion. But the 31-year-old Russian ace hasn’t lost sight of his roots.
In April, Malkin’s birthplace of Magnitogorsk will co-host the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with Chelyabinsk. For both these cities in the Ural Mountains, it’s the first time a major IIHF event has come to town, and this Pittsburgh Penguins superstar couldn’t be prouder.
“It means everything,” said Malkin, a two-time NHL scoring champ. “It’s great for our city. Great for our country. My town loves hockey. So important for us to be able to have this come to our town.”
Magnitogorsk has come a long way. In the 1930s, it was rapidly developed to pump out steel for Soviet industrialization under Stalin. Malkin’s father Vladimir worked at the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steelworks. There wasn’t a proper arena here until the 1991-built Romazan Ice Palace.
Since then, Magnitogorsk has celebrated five Russian championships – three in the old Superliga and two in the KHL – and the 7,500-capacity Arena Metallurg has welcomed hockey fans since 2006. But this U18 World Championship puts the city of 417,000 on the map in a new way.
The tournament holds special meaning for Malkin because his first two IIHF medals came as a U18 star. After capturing bronze in Yaroslavl on a squad with Alexander Ovechkin in 2003, the towering centre captained Russia to the 2004 title in Minsk. In the 3-2 gold medal victory over the United States, he set up Dmitri Shitikov’s third-period winner. (To make things exciting, Malkin’s future Pittsburgh linemate and buddy Phil Kessel scored on the power play with 1:38 left.)
“It’s always fun when you win,” Malkin said. “To be able to win in your country makes it that much better. Just being able to score big goals for my team stands out the most. Helping the guys reach our goal of winning.”
2012 was another big IIHF year for “Geno.” He won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, and became the only player to win both the NHL and IIHF World Championship scoring title in the same year since Wayne Gretzky in 1982.
Then when the third NHL lockout began that autumn, he seized the opportunity to play for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, his original club, for the first time since he was 19. He dominated KHL opponents until it was time to return to Pittsburgh, potting 23 goals and 42 assists in just 37 games.
“Just having the chance to play in front of my family and friends was fun for me,” Malkin said. “Playing in the NHL, I didn’t have that chance for a long time. Nice being able to play with that support.”
Even though Malkin was bizarrely excluded from the NHL’s 2017 list of its 100 greatest players, he’s surely in the conversation for the greatest Russian NHLer of all time along with Ovechkin, Sergei Fyodorov and Pavel Datsyuk. Whether or not he ever adds an Olympic gold medal to his collection, he’s also on track for both the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He always finds new ways to excel, like scoring power-play goals in three consecutive games this season for the first time in his NHL career. If he helps the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins win their third consecutive Cup this June, they’ll become the first club to achieve that dynastic feat since the New York Islanders, who won four straight from 1980 to 1983.
What advice does Malkin have for the fresh-faced talents who hope to use this U18 tournament as a springboard to NHL and international success?
“Have fun. It’s a great time playing for your country. You never know how often you will play for your country. Enjoy the moment. I have great memories from my time in that tournament.”