Malkin slowly assimilates
Evgeni Malkin doesn't speak much English, but it's easy to see that when it comes to understanding, the 20-year-old Russian is starting to get it.
Whether it's watching television in the Penguins' dressing room after practice, laughing at jokes his teammates make after they get off the ice or answering a question from the media before his translator finishes converting it to Russian, Malkin seems to be comprehending much of what's going on around him.
Given how radically Malkin's life has changed in the three months since fleeing his native country, arriving in the United States and beginning his NHL career, his adjustment off the ice is almost as impressive as his adjustment on the ice.
The No. 2 overall NHL draft pick in 2004 was a big story this past summer. He took leave of his Russian team in August at a Helsinki airport and left the world wondering where he was. He hid out with one of his agents, a Russian-speaking adviser and security personnel, awaiting his visa. Days later, he resurfaced in Los Angeles with a story suited for Hollywood.
Then, there is the start to his NHL career.
Malkin scored a goal in each of his first six games, setting a modern-era record and becoming the first rookie to do so since 1917-18. With Sidney Crosby out with a groin injury this week, Malkin seems to have taken his game to another level in his absence. In 17 games going into Saturday night, he had a team-leading 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points, second on the team behind Crosby.
The next step is to get the native of Magnitogorsk to start speaking English, said Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, with whom Malkin lives. It might be the hardest part of learning a new language, especially for a competitive individual who's accustomed to being among the best.
"I know how many words he knows and he's much better than everyone thinks," said Gonchar, 32, who also played with Malkin on the Russian Olympic team last February. "When we're in the room he starts saying to me how he would say this thing and that thing, and he does it right. But he's so afraid to make a mistake that he's not pushing himself enough.
"I told him we have a good group of guys; no one's going to laugh at you. No one's going to say anything. They all want to help you, so just try it. And he's like, 'Yeah, I got to do it, I got to do it,' but as soon as people are around him he stops pushing himself."
Malkin took a few English lessons in Russia after the Penguins drafted him second overall in 2004. But hockey, not English, was his main priority and consumed most of his time.
When Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh, the plan was to have him study with an English tutor. That's been easier said than done.
"We found a tutor for him, but he doesn't have time for it," Gonchar said. "You think about it: We're playing three (games) in four (nights), three in four, all the time, and he needs a day off sometimes just to relax and recuperate."
The learning process has come simply from being immersed in the language every day on the ice and in the dressing room, from watching television and from using a Russian-to-English dictionary, Gonchar said.
Malkin's adjustment off the ice is equally as important to Penguins general manager Ray Shero as his adjustment on the ice. Shero said that team officials plan to sit down with Malkin, Gonchar and Gonchar's wife, Ksenia, this week to talk about how things are going and see where Malkin is at in terms of adapting.
"He appears happy, which is the most important thing," Shero said. "He's enjoying himself with his teammates; you can see that off the ice. So I think the adjustment is probably going as well as could be hoped. Week by week, it will get better for him. The biggest thing is for him to be happy, and the language will come. It comes for everybody."
Communication with teammates happens either through Gonchar acting as translator or through improvised sign language.
"So far, it's kind of tough to hang out with him," fellow rookie Jordan Staal said. "I think he understands more than anyone thinks. It's just a matter of saying it himself. He understands what you're asking him, but half the time he doesn't know what to say to answer back. It's tough for him. Obviously the faster he learns, the more fun he'll have here."
Malkin does hang out with his teammates on the road, especially for meals, and occasionally joins them out while in Pittsburgh. But the language barrier does present challenges, said Colby Armstrong, who sits next to Malkin in the locker room.
"It's tough for him to call guys and just go hang out," Armstrong said. "He called me one time and I had no clue what he was saying: 'Army! Deh deh deh, deh deh deh,' I was like, 'What• What?' But Gonch does a good job making sure he gets involved in pregame meals and gets him talking, so he's doing well. Everyone loves him, too. He's fun to be around."
Armstrong believes Malkin is becoming more comfortable, too, in his new surroundings and therefore trying to communicate more in English.
"Oh yeah, I think his English is coming along," Armstrong said. "He's starting to understand a little better and starting to warm up to guys, so it makes it easier for him to try talking to guys. I think for me, if I was in another country, to try to speak their language would be a little bit intimidating around a bunch of guys.
"He's doing a great job. It's kind of funny when he tries to communicate, sometimes he tries to say stuff in Russian to us and we're like, 'What• We don't understand.' But he's got a great personality, and you can see that. He's coming along."
Maxime Talbot, whose first language is French but who learned English beginning in sixth grade, said that Gonchar does encourage Malkin to use English.
"We were at a restaurant on the road and I was sitting beside (Malkin) with Gonch on the other side and Gonch was like, 'Order, try to speak,'" Talbot said. "It is hard to communicate. But sometimes he'll text message me, 'How are you?' So he's trying. I'm sure it's going to come just by being in this environment."
Armstrong said that even though the language barrier exists, it's easy to tell that Malkin has a good sense of humor, too.
"(Winger Andre) Roy gets him laughing good doing his Russian imitations and I think he has a good time," Armstrong said. "We play a little soccer game before each game, a bunch of us get together before warm-up and he has a great sense of humor when you're playing that game. When you get eliminated we make little jokes and everything, and he's right in on everything so he's fitting in well. He's a great guy."
If anyone knows what Malkin is going through, it's Gonchar.
He, too, was 20 years old when he arrived in the United States from Russia and, like Malkin, he didn't know English. Gonchar, a native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, said that by the end of his first year in the United States he understood most everything that was said to him, but that it still took about another year to feel comfortable speaking the language.
"But everyone is different," Gonchar said. "It took me awhile. But him, he's doing so good. (On Tuesday) he went out with a bunch of the guys without me and they had a good time. I'm sure he'll be better than I was and by the end of this year he'll be able to communicate at least a little bit."