Malkin's parents score big in city that loves son
He has transformed from a Stanley Cup Final flameout to Conn Smythe Trophy favorite in just a year, but the Malkin Pittsburghers dig most isn't named Evgeni.
The Penguins star's parents -- Vladimir, 51, and Natalia, 49, known lovingly by locals as "The Genos" -- have become Pittsburgh's unofficial first couple over the past two months.
"Interviews, pictures, autographs ... (people) ask us to sign anything," Vladimir Malkin said Friday through family friend and unofficial Penguins Russian translator George Birman. "We'd like to stay out of the spotlight, but how can you say no when people ask for your autograph or want to take a picture?
"I had one young girl ask me to kiss her. (My son) doesn't know."
A sit-down interview with Evgeni Malkin's parents, who do not speak English, revealed them as free spirits who laugh at their own jokes and are living up these moments of his on-ice success and their off-ice popularity.
"When he was 17 he started to play on so many (traveling) teams that we didn't see him a lot, probably less than most parents see their children at that time," Vladimir Malkin said of Evgeni, 22. "We've not had this period where it's so much us being parents looking over him."
So, Natalia Malkin interjected, "We come here, and he's like the parents to us because he knows what's best in Pittsburgh."
Evgeni Malkin did not comment for this story. After an optional practice for the Penguins at Mellon Arena, he quickly left the facility and drove to his home in Sewickley -- to say goodbye to them, his parents said, before driving off to catch a charter plane to Detroit.
Tonight he will try to fan the flames of his hot Stanley Cup Final in a pivotal Game 5 between the Penguins and Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. The best-of-seven series is tied, 2-2, and Malkin leads all players with seven points.
Malkin is the playoff leader with 35 points -- the most by any player since 1993 -- and second to teammate Sidney Crosby with 14 goals. He is trekking toward legendary company. Only Hall-of-Famers Wayne Gretzky and former Penguins star Mario Lemieux have recorded at least 40 points in a single playoff season.
Vladimir Malkin said he is proud but not surprised to see his son quiet critics who labeled him a playoff underachiever after he recorded only 3 points in a six-game Cup final loss to the Red Wings last season.
"This year, probably because he knows exactly what to expect, he's grown up more, he's more mature. That's why he's playing the way he's playing," he said.
Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar believes there is more to his teammate's dominance than what his parents let on.
"With Geno it's very emotional, and seeing him play has meaning for (his parents), so it gives him an extra energy and pushes him a little extra," said Gonchar, a fellow Russian with whom Malkin lived his first two seasons.
"But it also helps that when he goes home they're probably not talking about hockey, and he can get away from what everybody says."
Malkin's parents, said his friend and Pens TV host Alyonka Larionov, are not stereotypically Russian. She thinks that is why fans gravitated toward them at Mellon Arena and on road trips to Washington and Detroit, and the reason Evgeni appears relaxed during this playoff run.
"Typical Russian parents are very strict. You choose a career as a kid, and there are no alternatives, and if you don't put in hard work, you're a failure; that's how my parents were raised and how I was raised," said Larionov, the daughter of Hall of Fame former center Igor Larionov.
"The difference with Geno's parents is that they're just loving and supportive, and they let him go do his own thing."
On this trip to Pittsburgh, which Vladimir Malkin said probably would be their last "for at least a year," the Malkins have done their own thing, too.
Since arriving in late February, Natalia Malkin has cooked several meals for her son and teammates including Gonchar and Petr Sykora.
"One night, Petr was eating a big salad, and he said, 'I go to restaurants and pay, but I should just pay you because it's better,' " she said. "Evgeni has told teammates that I like to cook, but maybe he doesn't want them eating all of the food I cook for him."
Like any mother, Natalia rearranged the kitchen of her son's house. Like any father, Vladimir leads the discussions at dinner.
A retired Russian steelworker, Vladimir said parts of the Pittsburgh area ("Aliquippa, a lot") remind him of home, Magnitogorsk. On bus trips to playoff games in Washington and Detroit, he talked about wanting to fish some of the waters he spied through the window.
"George has told everybody that, and now that is all people think I like to do -- fish," he joked about Birman, who translated for Evgeni during post-game interviews the last two seasons. "We need to find something else to say about me."
OK, then, there's this:
"I've never seen anything like the reaction people have to them," longtime Pirates media relations director Jim Trdinich said of Malkin's parents.
Trdinich and his brother watched Game 4 of the Cup Final on Thursday from Mellon Arena in section B3, where the Malkins have watched Penguins home playoff games -- Vladimir on the edge of his seat, Natalia with her hands folded on her lap.
"Within five minutes everybody was coming up to them, taking pictures with them, slapping high-fives with them," Trdinich said. "It's almost like people in the arena were looking for them."
If so, NHL Network analyst Gary Green has a suggestion for what fans of "The Genos" can say during Game 6 on Tuesday.
"Just say, 'Yellow blue bus,' " he said. "That's how it sounds to a Russian when they say, 'I love you.' "
With its warm reception to them, the Malkins agree that Pittsburgh already has showered them with love.
Meet "The Genos"
Outtakes from an English-translation interview with Vladimir and Natalia Malkin, parents of Penguins star Evgeni:
Q: How many young ladies in Pittsburgh have told you they are your son's girlfriend?
NM: A lot.
VM: We don't even know how many, so all we can say is a lot.
Q: If "The Genos" were a band, who would play what instrument?
NM: "Geno" would play the drums. That's him, definitely.
VM: I would watch, maybe play piano. She would make the food.
NM: Our other son, Denis, could play guitar.
VM: There is no singer. We're not The Beatles. If somebody at home heard us saying this, they'd never believe it.
Q: How does Pittsburgh food compare to Russia?
NM: I think it's good.
VM: It's the same, but we never go out. Everybody here wants her to cook.
Q: What will people in Pittsburgh do without "The Genos"?
VM: They'll miss us for a year. Then we'll come back and start all over again with new pictures and more fun.