defenseman Sergei Gonchar
swears housemate Evgeni Malkin
can speak decent English.
Gonchar would know. His 5-year-old daughter, Natalie, happens to be the one teaching Malkin the language and, like it or not, he’s forced to listen.
"My daughter speaks English better than Evgeni,’’ Gonchar told NHL.com. ``They actually started learning the language at the same time, two years ago. Natalie was going to school and Evgeni just moved over from Russia and was beginning his NHL career. She speaks perfect English and sometimes gives Evgeni a hard time; even she gets frustrated. But Evgeni always plays games with her, so I think she takes it easy on him.’’
"After learning a new word in school, Natalie will come home and say to Evgeni, 'Now repeat after me,’ and begin teaching him,’’ Gonchar added. “And he repeats, so I know he doesn’t just say 'Yes’ and 'No’ all the time.’’
Gonchar, 33, has acted as Malkin’s landlord and personal interpreter since the 21-year-old left Russia to sign with the Penguins on Sept. 5, 2006. It was a period when Malkin needed a place to stay, and the Gonchar family generously obliged.
"I was surprised in the beginning,’’ Malkin said, via Gonchar. "I didn’t expect it was going to happen, but I am very thankful. I probably would not be playing as I am right now if Sergei and his family didn’t help. Sergei has a lot of experience, so he’s helping me on the ice – and off the ice with the little things. So I guess I’m lucky that I’m playing with such an old guy.’’
Gonchar says Malkin has been a perfect guest during his two-year stay, always chipping in with household chores. Malkin, though, said he plans on finding a place of his own by the start of the 2008-09 campaign.
"He’s a good housemate, helping out whenever we need his help, and when he’s not helping, he’s on the computer, sending e-mails to friends,’’ Gonchar said. "He’s quiet, but fun. Sometimes he'll tell little jokes that come out of nowhere. That's why, I guess, he's staying the second year in a row. He still keeps in contact with his friends back home, but at the same time, he is trying to get accustomed to the American lifestyle. I think he’s a lot more comfortable this year than last.’’
From an English-speaking standpoint, Malkin isn’t close to feeling comfortable. But when it comes to doing what he does best on the ice, boy, is he ever fluent.
After winning the Calder Trophy as the League’s top rookie last winter with 85 points (33 goals) in 78 games, Malkin already has 89 points (38 goals) through 68 contests this season. He’s neck-and-neck with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (90 points) for top honors in the League scoring race.
Malkin and Gonchar represented the Eastern Conference in the 2008 All-Star Game in Atlanta. Malkin recorded two assists, and Gonchar was on the ice when Boston’s Marc Savard scored the winner in an 8-7 triumph against the West. Gonchar, who made his fourth All-Star appearance in 13 NHL seasons, has 178 points in 221 games since signing with the Penguins as a free agent in 2005. His 53 points this season rank second among defensemen in the League, behind only Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, who has 57 points.
As a youngster, Malkin didn’t follow Gonchar’s career very closely. That all changed when the Penguins picked him second in the 2004, one spot after Ovechkin.
"I never followed Sergei’s career before Pittsburgh,’’ Malkin said. "But when I was drafted by Pittsburgh, I started following Sergei since I would be playing for his team. Plus, when we play in international tournaments, I would always take notice of the way Sarge was playing.’’
Recently, with star Sidney Crosby out of the lineup, Malkin blossomed into a true go-to superstar. It is a maturation that has tremendously impressed Gonchar.
"When you know somebody very well and he performs well on the ice, I think it’s only natural you are very happy for him,’’ Gonchar said. "We work out together, so he has the advantage because I've been working with a conditioning guy for a couple years now. We built a program, especially for the NHL, geared toward the way we play and skate in Pittsburgh. Our summer program is kind of hitting that style.
“Evgeni just kind of jumped on board. It's easy for him because he had the luxury to just go there and, pretty much, everything was ready for him. It’s one of the reasons I feel he’s playing and feeling better this year.’’
Malkin’s climb to NHL stardom also has given young Natalie Gonchar reason to cheer.
"My daughter really gets excited when Evgeni scores so, obviously, when she’s happy, we’re happy,’’ Gonchar said. "It’s one of those things where we’re connected in a strange sort of way.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.