Out in the open
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Evgeni Malkin sat back in the lobby of his luxury beachfront hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Saturday.
He couldn’t be farther from the life he left behind in dramatic fashion earlier last week, escaping from his Russian team and life in the tiny, Siberian industrial town of Magnitogorsk. He also couldn’t be farther from his family, friends and culture.
Two weeks ago, the Russian hockey star and Penguins top prospect was pressured into signing a new contract with his Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the middle of the night. It was a decision that drove him to tears and a decision that, in the hours immediately following, he knew he couldn’t live with.
After his team arrived in Finland days later for a tournament, Malkin fled, hid out in an apartment in Helsinki with his agent and an interpreter while awaiting his visa and finally made it to the United States on Wednesday.
Now he waits under sunny California skies to see what legal drama might unfold as a result of his actions. It wasn’t what he wanted to do, but it was what he had to do in order to realize his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.
Yesterday, Malkin told his story to the Tribune-Review through interpreter Olga McQueen, a native Russian who lives in Vancouver and is working for Malkin’s agents, Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry.
“Definitely I never expected anything like that to ever happen to me, but life is full of surprises, good and bad, and this is one of those times,” Malkin said. “This is life. Sometimes you have to accept things the way they go or try to alter your situation.”
When Malkin disappeared from his Russian team on Aug. 12 and immediately went into hiding just days after signing a new contract, people from Moscow to Moose Jaw were stunned.
Why sign a new contract with a team only to leave them days laterâ¢ And why flee the way Russian players had to under the Communist regime when the country is now free and anyone can leave at any time?
The story goes back to last summer when team officials made a verbal promise to Malkin that if he played one more year for them, they would support him leaving for the NHL and the Penguins in 2006.
But those same team officials had other ideas, and after a transfer agreement between the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL fell through on Aug. 2 of this year, it sparked a series of events that led to Malkin’s dramatic escape to the United States.
With an easy transfer no longer a possibility, Malkin’s then-agents, Newport Sports, took advantage of a loophole in Russian labor law that allows an employee to give two-weeks’ notice and walk away from the job, even if the employee is under contract. But what Malkin didn’t know was that, inexplicably, his Russian-based Newport agent had turned his passport over to the team.
When Malkin asked for it back, general director Gennady Velichkin refused to hand it over.
So while Malkin himself wasn’t being held hostage, his passport was.
Malkin fired his agents at Newport and went back to Brisson and Barry, who represented him for several years up until June. They barely had time to figure out their next course of action before Malkin and his parents were “invited” to a 9 p.m. meeting with team officials at a lakeside business center outside of Magnitogorsk.
That was on Aug. 6.
Team president Viktor Rashnikov started the meeting and, according to Malkin, expressed “his point of view” and the team’s interest in Malkin staying another year. But Malkin and his family said that they would not sign a new contract.
“I still wanted to play in the NHL this season,” Malkin said.
Malkin said Rashnikov stood up, thanked everyone and left.
But it wasn’t over.
Not even close.
Malkin and his family left the office and went outside where they were joined again by Velichkin and another team official who suggested they follow the Malkins home to continue “negotiations.”
“They didn’t want to give up,” Malkin said. “They hoped very much that the contract would be signed at that point at our house.”
By this time, Brisson and Barry, who knew the meeting was taking place, were getting concerned. They’d called the Malkin home at 11 p.m. and Malkin’s brother informed them that his family wasn’t home yet.
Later, McQueen, who was already working with Barry and Brisson, called the house and got Malkin’s mother, Natalia, on the phone. She whispered that she could not talk, and told them that Magnitogorsk officials were there in the home, talking to Malkin.
Malkin’s Russian advisor and ally of Brisson and Barry, Gennady Ushakov, was also there, but there was not much he could do to help. McQueen relayed to Natalia Malkin that her son had the legal right to get up and leave at any time. But although Malkin said he was never in physical danger, Velichkin was nonetheless pressuring the 20-year-old, preying on his feelings of loyalty to the only team he’d ever known, the town he grew up in and his country.
This continued from midnight until 2:30 a.m., Malkin said, until finally he couldn’t stand it anymore and gave in. He signed a one-year deal to stay in Russia even though his only wish was to go to the NHL and play for the Penguins.
He went to his bedroom in tears.
Malkin felt betrayed. The team had nurtured him throughout his career and had always been there for him, but when he knew it was his time to be in the NHL, he realized they were concerned only with their own interests.
“After I had the contract signed, I felt so upset and I felt deceived by Velichkin,” Malkin said. “I felt something had to be done about that, so I phoned J.P. the next day and asked him to help me to leave. I was so determined.”
Magnitogorsk was scheduled to play a game in Moscow and then travel to Helsinki for a tournament. His team believed he was staying, and Malkin had to get his passport back in order to leave Russia. So Barry and McQueen planned to meet him in Helsinki, and when Malkin hit Finnish land, he snuck away from the team in the airport, met Barry and McQueen and the three went into hiding in a Helsinki apartment waiting for the U.S. Consulate to re-open so Malkin could get his visa.
He knew it was his only option.
“I was not frightened,” Malkin said. “I was calm.”
The whole time, Malkin was just blocks from his Russian team, and for that reason his agents hired security guards to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
At no time was Malkin in fear of any physical harm, he said. But he was worried about his family.
“I was very much concerned about my family because I expected Mr. Velichkin to start making phone calls and be not quite polite with my family,” he said. “I was also worried that lawyers would start calling and contacting my family trying to get them to sign any kind of documents. Which has already happened. They received calls and were asked to sign papers.”
But he knew it was his only choice.
Malkin got his visa Wednesday and late that night he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. Since then he’s skated with a few current NHL players including defenseman Rob Blake and forward Anson Carter, dined on steak, found a favorite breakfast haunt in Venice and spent a lot of time swimming in the hotel pool under the warm California sunshine.
“I’m glad that I’m here,” Malkin said. “I wish things could have been done in a different way, amicably. It’s been a very difficult decision for me to make. But I knew that I had to do that. I do recall that Velichkin said if I leave that there can be a huge, huge scandal, which obviously has happened. But I do know that now that I am in the right place for myself.
“It was the only way, unfortunately.”
Malkin’s ordeal may not yet be over.
He will remain in Santa Monica with Brisson and McQueen at least through Aug. 28, two weeks after he again gave written notice that he was leaving the team. Velichkin has claimed that the faxed notification is partly illegible and has threatened to sue. While no lawsuits are currently pending, Brisson said that their legal team is forming its own plan right now.
The Penguins’ top pick in 2004 (2nd overall) also still has to sign a contract with the team, although at this point that is considered to be a technicality.
But he’s a lot closer to being in the lineup on Oct. 5 when the Penguins open the 2006-07 season against the Philadelphia Flyers than he was two weeks ago. And as much as the Penguins and their fans want to see that happen, Malkin probably wants it 10 times as much.
Otherwise he wouldn’t have gone through all he did the past few weeks and then brush aside the suggestion that what he did required courage or bravery.
“I believe that anyone who would have such a dream to play in the NHL for a long time would probably have made the same step as I had to do,” he said, “to follow the dream.”
The Malkin file
Who: Evgeni Malkin
Born: July 31, 1986, Magnitogorsk, Russia
Drafted: 2nd overall, 2004
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