“My Dream, It Has Come True”

It was a delayed debut for the young superstar after his much-anticipated arrival on Sep. 4, 2006. He signed his first NHL contract with the Penguins the next day, and just over two weeks later, Malkin made his much-anticipated NHL preseason debut in Moncton, New Brunswick, where the Penguins were playing the Philadelphia Flyers in a neutral -exhibition game site.

Unfortunately, in the second period of play, Malkin and his teammate John LeClair collided behind the net, with the rookie catapulting over the veteran before collapsing to the ice. Malkin lay there for several minutes before eventually skating off of his own accord and being taken to a local hospital, eventually learning that he had dislocated his left shoulder.

Malkin had risked everything to come to America to play in the NHL. He left his hometown of Magnitogorsk, Russia for a foreign country, a land where he could not speak the language and had no family. And just when he was on the brink of living his dream, it all seemed to be crashing down.

“I think it’s maybe the hardest moment in my life,” Malkin said. “Because I came to the US, it’s all new – the game, practice. I try to work hard every day, and the first exhibition game against Philly I got a bad injury.”

So despite everything that Malkin had gone through to get there, he found himself re-evaluating his future in Pittsburgh and the NHL, and whether he had made the right choice to leave his old life behind.

“I think a couple things, like bad things, in my head. Like maybe I need to go back to Russia,” Malkin said. “Because it’s not my game, it’s a hard game, it’s just an exhibition game and it’s already an injury. I called my parents, friends and said maybe I’m not ready to play here, you know? Sometimes I think about this, maybe I’m not strong enough.”

Fortunately, those thoughts and those doubts began to dissipate after getting an MRI the next day and meeting with medical staff. While one doctor thought Malkin might need surgery, another said he would be okay – he just needed to recover for a bit and then work to strengthen his shoulder. And once Malkin started the rehab process, his determination returned.

“After I started to (rehab), I said it’s my dream to stay here, be stronger, and it’s good,” Malkin said. “I came back pretty quickly. I missed the first four games, but I came back and the first game, first goal, it’s pretty amazing.”

The Penguins were hosting the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 18, 2006, and everything from that day is still so clear in Malkin’s memory. Starting with waking up and eating breakfast, then going through a short morning skate before coming back to Mellon Arena late in the afternoon.

As Malkin put his gear on, he was incredibly nervous. As if making his NHL debut wasn’t scary enough, he had the added stress of coming off an injury. But the 20-year-old rookie’s inner confidence came out when it was time to line up to walk out.

Sidney Crosby had gone second to last before moving to last late in his first season. Now in his second year, following his 102-point campaign, Crosby thought he was going to continue bringing up the rear.

“I didn’t even think about it, was about to go out, and Geno was still standing there,” Crosby said. “There’s a little bit of a language barrier, but not a ton when it comes to that. I could tell that he wanted to go last. I just said, ‘Do you usually go last?’ And then he told me, ‘Three years Super League.’

“The three years pro in Russia, I guess, was more than the one year I played in the NHL. He wasn’t budging at all. I was trying, like, ‘rock-paper-scissors every game?’ And he was like, ‘no.'”

That story, which has been well-documented, still makes Crosby laugh every time he tells it. Malkin chuckles too, saying, “We know how Sid is superstitious, he does lots of small things. I know it’s important for him. But in Super League, I always go last. It’s worked! We won three Cups, he’s the best player Happy, because we did a good job.”

So as Malkin followed Crosby down the tunnel, and came out of the runway, he had an experience he’ll never forget.

“When I step on the ice, I look at the fans around, and everyone stands up and claps,” Malkin said. “It’s an amazing moment, they all support me. I believe all fans were waiting for me to get into town. Because there were a couple stories in the magazines, they say Geno is in town, he’s back.

“It’s my first game in the NHL. My dream, it has come true. People love me and people wait for me and they support me. It’s an amazing moment because I look around and they all stood and clapped.”

With 1:22 remaining in the second period, the 17,030 fans in attendance all rose to their feet again when Malkin got his first-ever point, scoring on Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur.

“It’s not pretty, but it’s amazing because you’re nervous, for sure, first game, after injury,” Malkin said. “But this goal gives me confidence, for sure.”

Malkin has gone on to tally hundreds of goals in the 16 years since, and he still celebrates each one like it’s his first.

There’s nothing better than to see how emotional he is on the ice when he’s able to score goals, because I think that’s kind of his way to feel good about himself and what he brings to the team,” said Malkin’s longtime teammate and friend, Kris Letang. “He wants to make a difference every single shift. That’s his way to help the team win.”

What makes Crosby marvel the most when he watches Malkin play is how he makes the game look so easy. “The way he knives through guys, or going end to end, or you’ve seen the spin-o-ramas he’s had over the years… I mean, those are unique plays, and you appreciate them, you know?” Crosby said.

Teddy Blueger said that sometimes, guys will actually start laughing when they watch him from the bench, because they’re in disbelief at what Malkin just managed to pull off.

“I think with Geno, obviously he’s got all the skills,” Crosby said. “He’s got every tool. He’s got the size, he can skate, obviously his hands are amazing. But I think it’s just his ability to take over a game, and that’s probably more mental than physical. I mean, it’s a mindset. He’s got that passion, that fire, and he can’t be stopped when he gets in that mode. It’s got to be tough for other teams playing against him.”

Malkin has also gone on to have some more serious injuries, including two major knee surgeries. The first one came after he tore his ACL and MCL in February of 2011. Malkin was able to return for the following season, and ended up winning the Art Ross Trophy (scoring champion), Hart Trophy (league MVP), and Ted Lindsay Award (outstanding player as voted by his peers).

The most recent one followed a similar script to the shoulder injury he had as a rookie. When Malkin first hurt his other knee in March of 2021, he was again told he could have surgery, or hold off. At first, he tried playing through it, but ultimately had to go under the knife that June. After coming back in January, Malkin finished last season with 20 goals and 42 points in 41 games.

“For him to have the career that he’s had and battle through the stuff he’s had to battle through – he’s had two ACL repairs, that’s really tough,” Crosby said. “One of those who could derail someone’s career. It’s not easy, and that’d be understood. But he continues to fight and continues to want to be the best.”

Malkin’s work ethic and determination is something that continues to impress his former teammate, countryman and close friend, Sergei Gonchar, and has since the beginning. Gonchar pointed out how Malkin came into the league as, he put it with a laugh, “a tall, skinny boy.” But he put in countless hours at the gym to become stronger. Now, at 36 years old, Malkin has started his 17Th season in his typical beast mode, more motivated than ever to prove that he can still play at an elite level.

“Sometimes people think that he’s such a talent, everything comes easy to him. But I can tell you that he works hard,” Gonchar said. “He’s looking out for his diet, what he’s eating. It’s not always the talent that he has, but also the dedication to make sure he’s good and he’s still competing at that level.”

And Malkin’s dedication to one city, to one team, and to his “favorite player, favorite guy,” as Geno calls Sid – is incredibly special as well.

“The fact that we have played as long as we have together, I think that’s a pretty rare thing these days,” Crosby said. “With just so much turnover in the league, it’s easy, there’s other motivations. Sometimes when you get to certain points, guys want more of a role, or they want a change of scenery, or they want to try a different team. And those are all valid reasons, but to be committed to an organization, to a group, and still continue to play at a high level and still want to win – that says a lot.”

Bryan Rust tried not to bother Malkin too much about his contract situation, since he didn’t want to add onto any stress he was already feeling. But like the rest of us, he saw the comments Malkin made in his end-of-season media availability heading into the summer about not wanting to go anywhere, and said in actuality, those feelings were probably amplified 10 times over for Geno.

“It’s my second hometown, for sure. This city, this team and fans, it’s in my heart forever,” Malkin said. “No question here. I know I have like a couple bad injuries, but I’ve met lots of nice people here, lots of new friends. It’s an amazing city for sports, not just for hockey, like baseball and football too. I I’m enjoying being here for the next four years, just be on one team forever, you know?

“I hope we have a chance to play in the finals again. I play with Sid and Tanger I hope all my life. Happy to be here again. Like, it’s not a question, for sure. There have been more good things (than bad things), for sure. Good memories, and I enjoy being here every day.”

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *