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Ex-Pen Gonchar unsure where future will take him

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Penguins Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar share a laugh during practice at Mellon Arena Sept. 15, 2006. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

Sergei Gonchar is trying not to think.

That is no easy task for one of the NHL's most cerebral defensemen.

He is 38, in the final season of his contract, and there is another world out there for him, his wife and their two daughters.

That world could be anywhere.

It could be Ottawa, playing out his NHL career with the Senators.

Or Pittsburgh, finishing on a run with dear friend Evgeni Malkin.

Or Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Or Moscow, in a cozy apartment with a kitchen cramped by racks of fine wine.

It could be South Beach, boating in the clear waters off Florida's coast, baking in the sun and basking in the glow of longtime friends.

The promise of that world — any of them — is why Gonchar is trying not to think. If his career, which dates to a 1994 debut with the Washington Capitals, is short on months, a moment spent recalling the past or pondering the future is just wasted time.

“You can't plan the way you're going to finish it,” Gonchar said. “You don't know how it's going to turn out.”

Pittsburgh always there

Games like the one Sunday afternoon are never easy for Gonchar.

He loves his Ottawa teammates. The franchise's surprising return to the Stanley Cup playoffs last season rejuvenated him. He believes, though many outside Canada's capital do not, that the Cup could come to Ottawa this summer.

Playing against the Penguins, as the Senators will Sunday, still is not a lot of fun for Gonchar, even though almost three years have passed since his tenure in Pittsburgh ended.

“I had a special time there,” Gonchar said. “They are such great, great players. It was probably the highlight of my career. To be honest, not that many hockey players have a chance to play with the two best players. It will be there always for me.”

It will be there for them, too.

Gonchar spent five seasons with the Penguins. He was, and remains, the most prominent free agent to sign with the franchise. His five-year, $25 million contract in July 2005 represented an enormous commitment for a cash-strapped franchise.

No free agent has been paid more by the Penguins.

History shows the Gonchar deal was former general manager Craig Patrick's last great move, and not just because Gonchar took a young, shy and uncomfortable Malkin under his wing.

“He helped me become (a) good player in (the) NHL,” Malkin said, downplaying the MVP season he had without Gonchar as a teammate. “Sergei (would) teach me hockey, life, America. He is like (a) brother for me. Even now, he is not in Pittsburgh, (but) he is my best friend.”

Gonchar's time with the Penguins, which ended in July 2010 when he signed with Ottawa, should be remembered for an aura that became a constant.

There is a reason this group of Penguins leaders — Sidney Crosby and alternate captains Malkin, Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz — never panic.

“He was just so calm, and that kind of wore off on everyone,” Crosby said. “He brought it in the room. He brought it on the ice. He just seemed like he never really panicked. Everything was always calm, cool and collected with him. That carried over.

“He was here my first year. That was the big acquisition for us. The way he treated me — I could not have asked for a better veteran. I was a younger guy, and he was always there to help. You obviously saw that with Geno, but Gonch was that way with all the younger guys. Certainly he was that way with me, and I'll never forget it.”

Orpik, who became Gonchar's defense partner, said there is no guarantee the franchise's turnaround — the Penguins were a bottom-five team in 2006 but played for the Cup in '08 — would have happened without Gonchar or his family.

The Gonchars threw team parties, organized events and helped create a family atmosphere that is now an organizational hallmark. Gonchar was usually the first player at practice, quick to share training tips. He became Malkin's translator. He even was the guy who replaced broken lounge appliances.

“Even as quiet as he was, he had that quiet leadership quality where just his presence — look, a guy that established being around a lot of young guys who were impressionable, even if Gonch wasn't saying anything, we all, not just the defensemen, kind of just watched how he carried himself, his routine, that stuff,” Orpik said.

“Not enough has been made about his role here. It wasn't just with Geno. There is that because they really are great friends, but Gonch was big for everybody. You can ask anyone who played with him who is still in this room. I don't think you'll find a more respected guy who's been here.”

From Russia with energy

Two recent Game 7s losses have left their mark.

There is the one he would wipe from his memory if he could: The last game at Mellon Arena, his last game with the Penguins, a Cup defense-ending defeat against Montreal in 2010 — and that haunting image of Gonchar misplaying a bouncing puck.

That one lingered until last spring.

Now there is the Game 7 that helped him find a spark: At Madison Square Garden, the eighth-seeded Senators playing the favored New York Rangers to the end, falling by a goal.

Yeah, that loss was the one that started Gonchar thinking maybe there is more left in this Russian's tank.

Playing for a Cup contender, which, again, he believes the Senators are, can make a veteran feel young, Gonchar said.

Then, after a summer spent — as always — training with Malkin in Moscow, the NHL lockout happened. It provided Gonchar another chance to play with his best friend, the one who dedicated his Hart Trophy to him.

“When you play with a friend, you find the chemistry right away, and it gives you that energy boost,” Gonchar said of the 37 games he and Malkin played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

“You always love to play. When you play with a partner, you enjoy it more than you normally would. It's a special feeling, and you don't have it every night. But when you have it, you have it, and you want it to be that way all the time.”

It could be that way all the time.

The trade deadline is April 3.

A free-agency summer approaches.

Soon enough, the world could be anywhere for Gonchar.

“Obviously, everybody talks about me and Pittsburgh, but I am having fun in Ottawa,” Gonchar said. “I had fun in Magnitogorsk with Evgeni. I have fun at home with my family.

“I haven't thought about what is next. My focus is to do as good as I can and have as much fun as I can right now. However it's going to work out is how it's going to work out.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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