Combined, Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi have well over 1,100 NHL assists.
However, they have registered two of their biggest this season.
They came when Gonchar and Recchi opened up their homes to a pair of Penguins rookies – Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
The 20-year-old Malkin left Russia for Pittsburgh this summer. He knew once he came to the area, Gonchar and his family would welcome him into their home. After all, it’s not exactly easy transitioning to a new country with a different culture and language.
And, having played with Malkin for a year in Russia and at last year’s Winter Olympics, Gonchar knew he could make things easier for the young Russian.
So far, Sergei, his wife, Ksenia, and their daughter, Natalie, have helped Malkin acclimate himself to the United States.
“His wife is cooking Russian food. She is an unbelievable cook,” he said through translator George Birman. “I thank him and her very much.”
Natalie helps out, too. When she comes home from preschool she teaches Malkin any new words she learned during the day. It’s helped him start to grasp the English language.
“I started to learn English. I know a little of it now,” he said. “I can answer simple questions. The guys on the team are around me helping me a lot with the language.
“I am trying to watch lots of TV and listen to the radio. Watching TV, I am trying to remember the phrases. I watch mostly movies and sports. I like comedy movies where I can laugh.”
The Penguins have helped Malkin fit in despite the language barrier.
“I don’t have problems. I am getting used to the culture and American lifestyle,” he said. “I am very comfortable with everyone in the locker room, too. I feel good.
“I wasn’t surprised much at anything when I came here. Everyone accepted me on the highest level. I want to thank all the guys in the locker room.”
Of course, even if Malkin does not have a firm grasp of English yet, he knows how to call for the puck from Sidney Crosby on the power play.
“I am just screaming in Russian. He understands what I want,” Malkin said with a smile.
Malkin, who has 25 points (13+12) in his first 21 games, seems to have little trouble producing points no matter what language he speaks. He scored a goal in his first six games – a “modern day” NHL record.
Three players have scored at least one goal in each of their first six (or more) games in the NHL and all three did so in 1917-18, the league’s first season: Montreal’s Joe Malone (14 games), Ottawa’s Cy Denneny (12 games) and Montreal’s Newsy Lalonde (8 games).
Malkin is also the only player in Penguins history to score a goal in each of his first six games.
Crosby started the unique living arrangement trend when, as an 18-year-old last season, he moved in with Mario Lemieux and his family. It seemed to work out well for the 19-year-old Penguins superstar. Crosby remains at the Lemieux household this season, but another 18-year-old Penguins rookie – Staal – has a veteran for a landlord in Recchi.
“He just offered [early on in the season] when I was here trying to make the team. I took the offer to the next level and decided to stay with him,” said Staal, the second-overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. “I think my mom, more or less, wanted me to stay with someone than anything else.
“You don’t want to get your mom too angry, so I went with that,” he said with a smile. “It worked out pretty well.”
Staal’s situation is a little different than the living arrangements for Crosby and Malkin, who will eventually move out of Gonchar’s house this season. Staal has his own house now. Rather, he resides in Recchi’s guest home.
“It’s like a mini apartment: one bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and a living space. It’s really nice,” he said. “It’s like 20 yards off the main house in the backyard.”
That doesn’t mean Staal won’t stroll up the yard to visit Recchi and his wife, Alexa, and their children Christina, Cameron and Austin. And, he’s a frequent visitor.
“I really like the family. Recchi has been great to me and all the kids are fun. It’s been awesome; I am really enjoying myself,” Staal said. “Whenever I am bored or something I can always go and relax there and stuff like that, so it’s nice. I have my privacy, too, so it’s really nice. It’s kind of like how my billet was in Peterborough.”
Like Crosby and Malkin, the unique living arrangement allows Staal to focus on playing hockey rather than having to deal with a multitude of external factors – at least early on in his NHL career. He has nine points (7+2) in 25 games.
“That’s exactly what Recchi said. He wanted me to relax and enjoy myself and worry about playing hockey,” Staal said. “So far, that’s all I am worrying about. It’s going pretty well.”
Like Malkin and Crosby, it is a winning formula for Staal. He is among the league’s top rookies with seven goals and two assists. He leads all rookies with three short-handed goals.
Staal became the first player since 1982 to score his first three NHL goals short-handed, matching Bill Gardner (Chicago). Both he and Staal played junior hockey for Peterborough (OHL).
On Oct. 21 vs. Columbus, Staal (18 years, 41 days) became the youngest NHL player to score two or more goals in one game since Dec. 21, 1943 when Bep Guidolin (18 years, 12 days) scored twice for Boston in an 8-5 win over Toronto.
Also, Staal is the youngest NHL player ever to score a pair of short-handed goals in one game, breaking the record set by Radek Dvorak (Florida) on Dec. 12, 1997 (20 years, 278 days). Staal is also the youngest player in NHL history to score on a penalty shot, breaking the record previously held by Nathan Horton (Florida) (18 years, 224 days) on Jan. 8, 2004.
While the Recchis offered up their guest quarters for the Staal, they did not impose any rules for the quiet youngster.
“No, not yet. Party at Staal’s house – you never know,” he said with a laugh.