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MA1KIN: Escape from Russia

A look inside Evgeni Malkin's escape to the NHL

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Wait and hope.

That's all a 20-year-old Russian could do while trapped in a strange apartment building in a foreign country. The hands on his watch told the movement of time. The strengthening and receding of the sun through a crack in drawn blinds told the movement of days.

Quarantined within four walls and with no end in sight, the only options for the young Russian kid was to wait and hope.

Evgeni Malkin exhausted those options during a five-day stretch in August 2006 in Helsinki, Finland. He had arrived in the country with his Russian hockey team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, but absconded upon arrival and went into hiding.

To avoid detection, Malkin didn't tell anyone of his whereabouts - not even his parents or closest friends. His cell phone was disabled. Malkin didn't even peer through the blinds to the outside world.

In that outside world an international manhunt was underway by those connected to Metallurg. Malkin was their star player and the team had gone through intense measures, including coercing him to sign a one-year contract against his wishes, to retain his services for the upcoming season.

In that outside world rumors and conjecture erupted at the sudden disappearances of an international superstar athlete. Fans, journalists, talk radio hosts and bloggers passed the time with speculation.

Malkin made it well known that he wanted to play for Pittsburgh in the NHL that season. When news circulated that Malkin had signed a one-year contract with Magnitogorsk, a collective eyebrow was raised. A week later, Malkin went missing.

Where in the world is Evgeni Malkin?

It was the question everyone, even Malkin's parents, were asking. Five days after vanishing, Malkin surfaced on American soil. He would achieve his dream of playing in the NHL that season for the Penguins. He would go on to enjoy a flourishing career highlighted by three Stanley Cups, two league scoring titles, a league MVP, a playoff MVP and many All-Star selections.

But sitting in that apartment in Helsinki, a 20-year-old Malkin didn't know what future lay ahead of him. All he knew was that he was risking everything to realize his dream to play in the NHL.

When Malkin left his Russian hockey team, he may have left Russia for good as well. He didn't know if he would ever be permitted back in his home country, the only country he had ever known. Malkin didn't know if he would ever see his parents, brother, family or friends again. He also wasn't sure if his risky getaway would even work. Would it all be for naught?

But Malkin chanced it all, just for that sliver of opportunity to play in the NHL.

Those thoughts and many others entered his mind as the days slipped by in Finland. Malkin had applied for a visa at the United States consulate in Helsinki, which was located one block away from where his Russian team was staying. As the consulate went through the process, Malkin remained in captivity. Time stood still.

All Malkin could do was wait and hope.

"All human wisdom is contained in two words - Wait and Hope."

Those words were written by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844. The protagonist in that story, Edmond Dantes, is wrongfully imprisoned. Dantes successfully escapes and finds a treasure of fortunes on the other side of the walls.

In 2006, over 160 years after that novel's publishing, the protagonist in this story, Evgeni Malkin, is wrongfully imprisoned. This is the story of his successful escape and the fortune he found on the other side of the ocean.

City near the magnetic mountain

The Ural Mountains cut through Western Russia, the physical barrier that separates the European and Asian continents. On the Siberian side of this divide, resting in a valley, sits the city of Magnitogorsk. 

Founded in 1929, Magnitogorsk - which translates to "city near the magnetic mountain" - was designed to be the crown jewel of Joseph Stalin's initial Five-Year Plan. It was on the city's iron-rich soil that Stalin envisioned forging the greatest iron and steel city in the world, and a symbol of Communism's strength and superiority to the West. 

Magnitogorsk would live up to the former, becoming the biggest producer of iron and steel for the former Soviet Union. During the height of World War II, the city was the heart of the industrial war machine. But just as the cracks would splinter, fracture and destroy the Soviet Union, the city would suffer a similar fate. 

Magnitogorsk is a city trapped in another time. The steel mills, factories and smokestacks remain, though many are empty or collapsing. The billows of smoke and soot still swirl high in the air even decades after their expulsion. Still, the city produces more steel than most, and the grey skies show no signs of yielding. 

Ingrained in the spirit of the people in Magnitogorsk is a sense of pride. Generation after generation toiled in those factories, sacrificing their lives and souls. It was simple, honest, hard work. They wore splintered and dirt stained hands as badges of honor. They sacrificed for their family, their community, their country. 

Vladimir Malkin spent his life working in these mills for Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. After his long shifts at the factory ended he would return home to his dilapidated, two-bedroom apartment with his wife, Natalia, and two sons, Denis and Evgeni. 

Ingrained in the spirit of Evgeni is that same sense of pride and sacrifice: for family; for community; for country. Over time a young boy playing a child's game on a slab of ice across from his apartment would rise to become a new source of pride for the city near the magnetic mountain. 

Metallurg Phenomenon

In October of 1948, a few years after the end of World War II, Viktor Rashnikov was born in Magnitogorsk. Like everyone of his generation, Rashnikov started working at Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works at the age of 19 as a fitter in the company's repair shop. 

In due time Rashnikov would rise within the company, from fitter to head of production and products supply to chief engineer to first deputy general director. By the end of the 90s Rashnikov had become the general director, attaining complete control of the company, and was a self-made billionaire. 

One of the many assets of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works was the local hockey team - the Metallurg Magnitogorsk. 

The team was founded in 1955 to compete in the lower classes of competition of Soviet-era hockey leagues. Over time, the team found success and would rise through the rankings - landing in the Second League in the 1980s and winning back-to-back titles in 1989-90. 

Then the unthinkable happened. 

In an event that sent shockwaves through the world, the Soviet Union dissolved abruptly on December 25, 1991. The reverberations of the U.S.S.R.'s fall were felt all throughout Russia. 

In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Magnitogorsk was looking for a new symbol around which to which to rally. Rashnikov began making major investments into the entire Metallurg organization, from the professional team to the development programs and hockey schools. 

At this time, a 6-year-old boy named Evgeni was learning the finer points of the game as a member of the Metallurg hockey school. He began skating at the age of 3 when his father, Vladimir, screwed blades onto felt boots. But his talent was distinguishable even at a young age. 

Malkin grew up in an insular environment. His view of the world and of his future didn't penetrate the rising Ural Mountain range. 

"We had a good local team in Magnitogorsk," Malkin said. "They had a couple good players and I wanted to play with them. I wanted to be on that team."

As Evgeni grew, his hockey skills developed faster than those of his peers. Soon he found himself promoted to his older brother Denis' team, playing with and against older boys. It wasn't long before Evgeni, despite being the youngest player on his team, became the club's best player. 

"(Denis and Evgeni) skated in the same group. Evgeni was energetic, always climbed ahead, became team captain," said Evgeni's mother Natalia. 

Malkin's individual star continued to rise, and he was selected to play for Russia in the 2003 Under-18 World Junior Championship. He played on a line with another burgeoning star, Alex Ovechkin, and helped win a bronze medal for Russia. 

At the age of 17, a time when most teenage boys in Magnitogorsk start working in the iron and steel plants, Malkin signed his first pro contract with Metallurg. His first big purchase was a new private home for his family. No longer would they be stuffed in a cramped, rundown apartment building.

Malkin completed his first season of pro hockey with Metallurg, competed in the World Junior Championship and won a gold medal at the Under-18 World Junior Championship while being named the tournament's "best forward," all before the age of 18. 

In a city with the population of 400,000, Evgeni's name was a well-known commodity. As his play rose, so did his notoriety in the city. A local boy had grown into a local hero. This young kid from Magnitogorsk was representing his city for Team Russia on the world's stage. The city beamed with pride at his accomplishments. 

But it didn't take long before Magnitogorsk's native son would peer beyond Siberia. His thoughts started to drift across an ocean and into a brave new world. 

"When I was 17 years old, I played my first game (for Magnitogorsk)," Malkin said. "It was a dream come true. After that, I started to think NHL."

NHL scouts had been thinking about Malkin for some time. Many teams were torn between rating Malkin or his fellow countryman Ovechkin as the No. 1 prospect in that year's draft. 

The Washington Capitals won the NHL's lottery, and thus the first-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, which took place in Carolina. They made it clear Ovechkin would be their choice. Which meant that the Pittsburgh, holding the No. 2 selection, had their eyes on a young kid from a steel city. 

"I remember sitting in Carolina and I'm really nervous after Ovechkin (was selected)," Malkin said. "Then the Penguins come to the stage and they wait, wait, wait and I'm starting to get nervous. 'Maybe it's not my name, maybe I will be the next one, maybe I will wait for 10 more players.' 

"The Penguins drafted me No. 2 and I understood my dream was coming true."

Betrayal

After the Penguins called Malkin's name, the NHL was never far from his mind. He returned to Magnitogorsk to play the 2004-05 campaign for Metallurg, but after the season he had a meeting with team officials. 

In this meeting the Metallurg brass made a verbal commitment to allow Malkin to leave for the NHL if he played one more season in Magnitogorsk. Malkin agreed, and posted 21 goals and 47 points in 46 games for Magnitogorsk. 

In the summer of 2006 Malkin began to make plans for his departure and the new challenges that awaited him half a world away. Unbeknownst to him, Metallurg had made other plans. 

Negotiations on a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Federation, which would have allowed the Penguins to bring Malkin to Pittsburgh while providing compensation to Magnitogorsk, fell through in early August. So Malkin's agents needed to get creative. 

A loophole in Russian labor law allowed an employee to leave any job, even one under contract, by giving two weeks notice. Malkin executed that right only to learn that his agency at the time - Newport Sports - had previously surrendered his passport to Metallurg. 

When Malkin tried to retrieve it, Metallurg general manager Gennady Velichkin made it clear that he had no intention of returning it. 

Rashnikov had poured money and resources into Metallurg, which included the development of Malkin's talent. Velichkin, as general manager, believed that Malkin owed it to the team and city that had invested years into his development to play one final season for the club. And they were prepared to do whatever they could to make that happen. 

On Aug. 6, Malkin and his family were "invited" to a late-night lakeside meeting with team officials, including Velichkin and Rashnikov, the team president. Rashnikov began the meeting by expressing the team's desire to keep Malkin in Magnitogorsk for another year. 

However, Malkin rebuffed Rashnikov's attempts to have him sign a new contract. So the extremely short meeting came to an end. Or so the Malkins thought. 

Velichkin and another team official followed the Malkins to their home to continue negotiations. Though Malkin was never in any physical danger, the officials used every other method of coercion to get Malkin to sign a contract. They pushed him to stay for honor, pride and patriotism. They pushed him to stay for his family, community and country. They pushed him to show loyalty to the city and team that nurtured and honed his hockey skills. They even "explained" that his reputation would be tarnished and there would be a scandal if he were to "abandon" his team. 

This went on for hours. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., an exhausted and defeated Malkin succumbed. Against his deepest desires he signed a one-year contract. As the Magnitogorsk officials left his home, Malkin told them: "You just killed my dream." 

The 20-year-old Malkin went to his bedroom and cried. 

The Great Escape

Malkin's spirit was crushed. He believed Metallurg had broken their promise, and had only the team's interests at heart. Malkin felt trapped. He signed a new contract with Metallurg under duress, and worse, the team had confiscated his passport. Even if he wanted to escape, he couldn't. 

But Malkin didn't give up hope. He sought aide from his North American agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry of IMG Hockey, asking them to find a way to get him to Pittsburgh. 

"After I had the contract signed, I felt so upset and felt deceived by Velichkin," Malkin told the Tribune-Review in 2006. "I felt something had to be done about that, so I phoned J.P. the next day and asked him to help me leave. I was so determined."

Barry and his team hatched an escape plan. 

Metallurg had a tournament scheduled to take place in Helsinki, Finland. Since the team had to fly internationally, the club was forced to give Malkin his passport so that he could clear customs. 

The team plane touched down on Finnish soil on Aug. 12. Malkin disembarked, passport in hand, grabbed his hockey bag and disappeared. 

Barry and Olga McQueen, a Russian native that lived in Vancouver and worked for Barry, were waiting for Malkin upon his arrival at the airport. The three of them sneaked away from the airport and went into hiding. 

Speculation was widespread from news organizations, blogs and radio stations. No one, it seemed, knew where Malkin was. Not his teammates. Not his friends. Not even his family, as Vladimir and Natalia didn't know where their son was. 

It was an international mystery. 

The plan was for Evgeni to stay under the radar and out of sight until he could secure a fast-tracked visa via the U.S. Consulate in Helsinki. In the meantime, Malkin, Barry and McQueen were holed up in an apartment under fake names. The agency hired security guards, though merely as a precaution as they didn't foresee any physical danger. 

After five days on the run, Malkin obtained a visa for America. That same day he and his agents boarded a flight for Los Angeles. Once he arrived in America, his agents filed another two-week notice with Magnitogorsk. Though Metallurg threatened legal action without a transfer agreement between the NHL and Russian Federation there was little the team could do. 

"I wish things could have been done in a different way, amicably," Malkin told the Tribune-Review. "It (was) a very difficult decision for me to make. But I knew that I had to do that. Velichkin said if I leave that there can be a huge, huge scandal, which obviously has happened. But I do know that now I am in the right place for myself."

Brave New World

Malkin spent his first three weeks in the United States in Los Angeles. There he trained with other NHL players and tried to adjust to living in a new country. He passed the time by swimming in the hotel pool and visiting Venice beach. 

Malkin, who spoke very little English, was hit hard by the culture shock. He was surrounded by unfamiliar words formed by a foreign alphabet with symbols and signs that revealed nothing. Those around him spoke in streams of white noise. 

Even the most mundane activities - like working an ATM machine, ordering food in a restaurant or navigating to a local rink - were extremely difficult tasks. Malkin couldn't even request help from those around him. He didn't know the English words to explain, nor would he understand enough to interpret what he was being told. 

Malkin's agents did their best to help him with the transition, particularly McQueen. But Malkin was on his own when he stepped onto an airplane destined for Pittsburgh on Sept. 4. 

Upon his arrival at Pittsburgh International Airport, Malkin was greeted by fans, media and Penguins officials. He signed autographs, gave interviews with the media via a translator, then was transported to a hotel where he could unpack and exhale.

But before they arrived at the hotel, a team official informed Malkin that he was invited to Mario Lemieux's home for dinner that evening. 

Malkin met Mario and his family. Future teammates Sidney Crosby and Sergei Gonchar also attended the dinner. 

Sometime during dinner, Gonchar - a Russian native who grew up 150 miles from Malkin's home of Magnitogorsk - made Malkin an offer. The 32-year-old veteran defenseman told Malkin that he could live with his family "for as long as you'd like."

"I remember how tough it was (my) first year when I was getting into the league," Gonchar said. "I went through that and it wasn't easy for me. I thought if I could help and let him live at my house it would make that process easy for him to adjust to a new country and system."

The next day Malkin's signature found itself on a three-year contract with the Penguins and he moved into Gonchar's spare bedroom. That weekend he attended training camp with his new team. 

A preseason injury delayed Malkin's dream from coming true as he missed the start of the season. But finally, he stepped on the ice at Mellon Arena for his first regular-season game against New Jersey. It was a moment that was unthinkable just two months earlier. 

Malkin scored a goal in that game against Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur. Malkin had journeyed thousands of miles and risked everything to realize his dream. Twenty-six months after the Penguins called his name at the draft, he was playing in the NHL. 

"I remember my first game against New Jersey, I stepped on the ice and everybody stood up, gave me love," Malkin said. "It was pretty nice. I feel like the city waited for me. They wanted me here. I enjoyed being here every day." 

Malkin scored 33 goals and 85 points in his rookie season with Pittsburgh, winning the NHL's rookie of the year (Calder Trophy) award. He helped the Penguins break a five-year playoff drought. 

But for all of his success on the ice, Malkin was still homesick. He missed his parents. He missed his friends. He missed the familiar streets and smokestacks of Magnitogorsk. He missed his native tongue. 

When Malkin left, he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to go back to Russia. But as the year past, the atmosphere in the city near the magnetic mountain seemed to settle. The Magnitogorsk Metallurg organized harbored no ill feelings against Malkin for his departure. 

In the off-season Malkin was able to return to his city, to his family, to his home. Velichkin even met him at the airport with a hug. 

"Now, everything is good. I'm friends with the owners (Rashnikov). I'm friends with everyone," Malkin said. "It was tough. I was young. I'm a young superstar in my hometown. They wanted me to stay and play a couple more years. They gave me good money. But I understand I (was) ready to play in the NHL. 

"Growing up, if you want to be better, you play against better players. Everyone understands the NHL is the No. 1 league for players, for everything. I wanted to be here."

This article was written from personal accounts of Evgeni Malkin, his family, J.P. Barry and sourcing from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review.

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