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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins fans hope to see Evgeni Malkin play in the Steel City next year.

Well, in this Steel City anyway.

Malkin, the Penguins’ 2004 first-round pick (No. 2 overall), is tearing up the Russian Super League for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The 19-year-old center was named the league’s Player of the Month for October. He had 22 points (10+12) in his first 22 games, which ranked second in the league. However, his 10 goals were tops in the league.

The Penguins had hoped Malkin would leave his native Russia to play in the NHL this season, but the lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian hockey federation and the NHL kept him in his homeland for at least one more season.

While Pittsburgh and Magnitogorsk may be thousands of miles and continents apart, they have some intriguing similarities.

Both cities were huge steel producers for their respective countries during the Cold War. It’s reflected in the names of their sports teams. Pittsburgh’s football team is called the Steelers, while Magnitogorsk’s ice hockey team, Metallurg, means – you guessed it – “Steelers.”

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar joins Malkin as a link between the two cities. During the NHL labor dispute, which wiped out last season’s entire schedule, Gonchar played alongside Malkin for Magnitogorsk. Gonchar came to the Penguins as a free agent in August.

“There are a lot of similarities with both cities,” Gonchar said. “They both love sports, they both follow them all the time and the people are hard workers.”

Magnitogorsk is located near the Ural River in the Chelyabinsk Oblast [state] in western Russia near the Kazakhstan border. The city was founded in 1929 to exploit the rich magnetite iron ore of Mt. Magnitnaya on the eastern side of the southern part of the Ural Mountains. Due to the huge iron reserves in the area, Magnitogorsk grew into one of the world’s largest iron and steel works by the mid-1970s.

Sound familiar?

“Near the beginning of the century, the country was developing and they needed a lot of steel. So they built the factory right beside the mountain which contained all the material they needed it. That’s how the city began,” said Gonchar, whose hometown of Chelyabinsk is located a few hours northeast of Magnitogorsk. “I grew up 2 hours from there. I had heard about it and I knew there was a factory. There was a factory in my hometown, too, so I knew there were two big factories in the region. In my city they were making steel tubes, but the steel was coming from [Magnitogorsk].”

Not much was made public of Magnitogorsk during the Cold War as it was shrouded in Soviet secrecy due to its extreme industrial importance.

“Everything was a secret 30 years ago,” Gonchar said. “Everyone knew there was a steel company, but nobody knew what exactly it was doing or what the steel was for because nobody would tell you.”

After the Cold War thawed and the Soviet Union dissolved, some of the secrets unraveled. The city is home to the massive Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works (MMK), which is one of Russia’s largest companies. Most of the city’s 400,000 or so inhabitants work at the factory.

Unlike Pittsburgh, though, Magnitogorsk maintains its steel production on a grand scale.

“Pretty much the whole city is working there. It’s one of the biggest factories out there,” Gonchar said. “The city was supposed to only last 30 or 40 years because they were going to be out of the [ore]. But, later on, they decided to keep [the factory and city] and started to build supply routes from other places and the factory is still out there and the city slowly developed around it. That’s what it is now. They are still producing steel, but the city is much smaller than it was. The factory is huge. The city and the factory are pretty much the same size.”

The residents rally around their Metallurg hockey team much like Pittsburghers and their sports teams.

“Over there now, hockey is everything. They don’t have much going so sports are a big thing,” Gonchar said. “I am sure that’s the same way it is here – the people follow their sports teams.”

Like Pittsburgh’s Penguins, Magnitogorsk’s hockey team has a successful and rich history.

“They love hockey. It’s pretty much the only sport they have there,” Gonchar said. “The team has been successful for the past ten years. So they’ve been fortunate to see good players and teams.”

While Malkin won’t turn 20 until July 31, Gonchar believes he will have little trouble adjusting to the NHL, much like 18-year-old Penguins star rookie Sidney Crosby.

“I follow how he is playing and how the team does through the Internet. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him much,” Gonchar said. “I talked to a couple of the other guys on the team. It seems like he’s the best player out there on that team.

“From what I understood, he is willing to come [to Pittsburgh] and he’s planning to be here [next year]. He’s a good player. I am sure he will be fine.”

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