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New Penguins coach to meet with Malkin

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta (3) and Matt Niskanen watch as Evgeni Malkin clears the puck against the New Jersey Devils on Thurday, Oct. 3, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Mike Johnston addresses the media after being named as the new coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Penguins coach Mike Johnston is traveling to Russia this weekend to visit center Evgeni Malkin.

What if Malkin can't reciprocate the visit by reporting to training camp on time?

Tensions between the United States and Russia are heightened following last week's crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine.

The U.S. State Department said a surface-to-air missile likely brought down the passenger airliner.

Still, there should be little concern that Russian citizens will be stopped from traveling to the United States, said Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the former director of the National Security Agency.

“I understand the theoretical concern,” Hayden told the Tribune-Review. “But I don't think it's something that will ever take place.”

However, Hayden remains wary of Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested the political climate between the United States and Russia must be monitored closely.

“I can't conceive of anything our government would do to come back here and engage in commerce,” said Hayden, a North Catholic and Duquesne graduate. “(Playing in the NHL is) what (Malkin) does. I doubt Putin would do anything, but remember he once prevented American parents from adopting Russian children. That's terrible, and it portrayed a character trait about Putin that has no bounds. When you make war on adoptions, you might be capable of other stuff.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league wouldn't have much control should problems arise with Russian players leaving their homeland.

“There is always some level of concern about political tensions interfering with — or at least impacting — normal business operations,” Daly said. “It's nothing we have any control over. It will be what it will be, and we will adjust as necessary.”

Former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who spends his summers in Russia, isn't concerned. Gonchar, however, understands this is an uncomfortable time for outsiders to enter Russia.

“To me, it doesn't make any difference. I'm Russian,” Gonchar said. “I feel comfortable. I can see friends. If you're a foreigner, and you think about it and don't know what to expect, it's probably harder and more difficult. I think for our guys, for me and Geno, it hasn't changed much. We lead the same life, go to the same places for dinner, work out the same way. It's comfortable. We have no worries because we are Russian.”

Johnston doesn't have any worries, either.

The new Penguins coach visited Moscow eight times while he was working for Team Canada Hockey.

He said he always has felt comfortable in Moscow, which is where Malkin lives during the summer.

Johnston and Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar are visiting Malkin. Kadar visits him during the summer every year.

“It will be just fine,” Johnston said. “It's not an uncomfortable place to visit, even with the things that are (going on in the world).”

Penguins management declined to comment.

Russian players were not permitted to play in the U.S. during the Soviet Union era but arrived in the NHL during the early 1990s, many becoming stars.

Gonchar is hopeful the relationship between the countries will improve and that life quickly will get back to normal.

“I know what's going on,” he said. “But getting into details, it's tough for me to judge. There are different perspectives. I try not to think about it too much.”

Note: The Penguins named Jacques Martin senior advisor of hockey operations, which entails scouting at the NHL level. Martin, 61, was the only nongoaltending coaching staff member to survive the offseason coaching purge involving Dan Bylsma and his top two assistants.

Staff writer Salena Zito contributed. Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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