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Malkin in the Middle of This Hockey Struggle

Times Staff Writer

Seated in the sunny lobby of a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, his feet in flip-flops and his long fingers skimming the keys of a cellphone, Evgeni Malkin looked more like a bellboy than a budding hockey superstar whose hurried departure from his Russian homeland echoed the plot of a Cold War spy novel.

Barely 20 years old, a gangly 6 feet 3 and 178 pounds, Malkin stands at the center of a dispute that has strained the tense relations between Russian and North American hockey executives.

He did not intend to become a test case when he fled his team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, during a trip to Finland and arrived in Los Angeles last week. But he has known his destiny since he saw snippets of NHL games on the TV news and learned about the world beyond the Siberian steel town of Magnitogorsk.

“It was fascinating,” he said Tuesday, “and since then, it became my dream to play in the NHL.”

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For him, it’s simple. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, who chose him second overall in the 2004 entry draft, it’s simply tantalizing to think of adding a superbly talented center to a lineup led by Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby. Hockey’s Future, an online prospects magazine, invoked Wayne Gretzky’s name in discussing Malkin’s play at this year’s world championships.

“It seemed like he knew what was going to happen on the ice in the next moment and make his decisions using this Gretzky-esque predictability,” it raved.

In truth, little here is simple.

Relations between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation have been chilled by the Russians’ rejection of an agreement that would stipulate the sums NHL clubs would pay for drafting and signing Russian players. The Penguins would have paid $200,000 for Malkin under the old agreement; Russian officials, citing soccer’s huge transfer fees, wanted 10 times that. They’re also unhappy with the continued loss of their best players to the NHL.

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“The Americans’ arrogance is beyond any bounds. This is the theft of the century,” Gennady Velichkin, Metallurg’s top executive, told the publication Soviet Sport. “They don’t care that Malkin is Russia’s national treasure.

“We must sue not only Pittsburgh but the entire National Hockey League and its whole arrogance. The NHL must receive a total condemnation from the entire sporting world.”

Two previous legal challenges mounted by Russian hockey officials, involving Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin and Columbus’ Nikolai Zherdev, went in favor of the NHL clubs. However, Malkin’s case is complicated.

Metallurg officials promised him a year ago they’d release him after the 2005-06 season, but they couldn’t let go. Malkin insisted he wanted to leave for the NHL, but they continued to press him. On Aug. 6 they arranged a meeting with Malkin and his parents; it lasted 5 1/2 hours and ended when an emotionally spent Malkin agreed to stay another season.

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Through Olga McQueen, a Canadian of Russian heritage who has been Malkin’s translator, Malkin said Velichkin and other Metallurg officials “tried to push the buttons on his responsibility to the team and the national team. At the same time they told him that if he stays here, it would speed up the transfer agreement with the NHL and make better conditions for the Russian hockey federation.

“The negotiations, the so-called meeting, lasted from 9 at night until 2:30 in the morning. It was already hard for him to take. They kept repeating that he was a key player in country, and he meant so much for the team and Russian federation. ‘You cannot let the national team down. You have to stay for one more year, because everyone keeps so much hope for you.’ ”

Malkin regretted his decision immediately. On the advice of Don Meehan, then his agent, he invoked a provision of Russian labor law that allows employees to abandon a job or contract if they give two weeks’ notice. But he couldn’t leave Russia because he didn’t have his passport -- Velichkin did, and he wouldn’t hand it over.

Velichkin had to relent when Metallurg went to Finland to compete in a tournament. Malkin severed his ties with Meehan and hired J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson, who had represented him before. As soon as the team landed in Helsinki, Malkin sneaked away to meet Barry and McQueen, who hid him in an apartment for five days.

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“I felt quite calm and, actually, determined,” said Malkin, who couldn’t contact his parents or older brother during that time. “I didn’t feel nervous or concerned. I knew everything would end for me quite well.”

It hasn’t quite ended yet. Velichkin said Malkin’s notice was invalid because some of the text was illegible and he’d thrown it in the trash. Brisson said that based on legal counsel he and Barry have gotten, “we feel confident this is right way to go about it.” Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The days of involuntary servitude are behind us. We certainly respect the player’s ability to make personal choices consistent with his rights and obligations under applicable law.”

Brisson said Malkin would spend 10 more days in Los Angeles before going to Pittsburgh for contract negotiations. In the meantime, Malkin went boogieboarding for the first time, worked out with T.R. Goodman, who trains many NHL players, and skated with a group of NHL veterans in El Segundo.

“Even in the little drills we do in summer hockey, it’s obvious he knows what to do,” Kings defenseman Rob Blake said. “It caused a little excitement when he came to skate with us.”

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Malkin is ready for that kind of excitement to begin, and the intrigue surrounding his departure from Russia to end.

“I don’t have any concerns right now. All my concerns are gone by now,” he said. “I am very sure that I will be playing in the NHL this season.”


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