The best thing about the Penguins Game 1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, besides Miroslav Satan's head fake of netminder Cam Ward, was seeing Mama and Papa Malkin in the stands cheering on their son, Evgeni, as he flopped to the ice in celebration of his goal (a nifty little flip of a Phillippe Boucher pass over the shoulder of Ward.) Moments like that keep me tuned in. Not just to the magnificent Malkin and Penguins hockey, but to all sports. There's nothing so exhilarating as the synergistic dance of fan enthusiasm and player exuberance. When those fans and that player are kin, the enjoyment factor increases exponentially.
So few aspects of fandom are as satisfying as watching the Malkin family become part of the Pittsburgh family through the course of three hockey seasons. Vladimir and Natalia Malkin first traveled to Pittsburgh for a short stretch, to watch their son play and visit with him before returning home to Russia. For their son's part, he elevated his play when his parents were in the stands, prompting my buddy the U.Conn fan to note that the sooner we could transplant the Malkins to Pittsburgh, the better.
With each visit, Mama and Papa became more comfortable among the Mellon Arena rabble. At first, they looked like those sepia photographs of immigrants exiting the boats at Ellis Island, circa 1900, back before folks figured out that it was okay to smile in the presence of a camera, so they all just stared morosely and ended up looking stiff, dour and humorless for all eternity. (Somewhere in a huge trunk of family photos left to my mother by my grandmother, there is a photograph of my great aunt Lena on her confirmation day. In Italian Catholic circles, confirmations are pretty joyous occasions, but if you looked at this snapshot of my great aunt next to her mother, my great-grandmother, you would be certain they had just returned from a funeral. Or mine cave in.)
During those early visits to Pittsburgh during Evgeni's first season with the club (2006-2007), Vlad and Natalia looked as though they should be lurking in the background of that photo of my great aunt, like refugees straight off of the boat from Minsk and Pinsk. And understandably so. I'm not kidding when I say that they come from the Russian equivalent of Pittsburgh. They are not trendy, nor do they appear to be urbane dilettantes. Who knows what they thought of the nearly 13,000 insane Pens fans at the Arena? They're just regular folk whose son, as it turns out, is a freak on the hockey pond.
So they came to Pittsburgh to watch their son play and with each visit, they seemed to relax -- just a little. You had to watch it from the beginning to really see it. The changes were positively glacial. Slowly, bit by bit, game by game, one artistic Evgeni Malkin goal building on another, each point peeling away layer of discomfort from Natalia and Vladimir Malkin of Magnitogorsk, Russia.
With the Pens down two games to none in the 2nd round against the Washington Capitals, the young Malkin came alive. It was no fluke that it was on home ice, with his parents in the stands. His stat sheet read simply, 1 goal, 0 assists, but Geno was all over the ice. He dominated the game from the first puck drop. He soared, deeked, spun, drew penalties, created opportunities, wore down, and dazzled his opponents. When young master Malkin drilled a wrist-shot behind the previously impenetrable Simeon Varlamov, on a power play he himself created by goading fellow countryman Alexander Semin into a silly hooking penalty, I thought Mama Malkin was gonna climb over the glass and chest bump her son at center ice. I'd swear under oath that Papa Malkin teared up.
I usually tire of the needless, gratuitous shots of player wives or children in the stands. Because I just don't care. Just show me the damned game. But there is something so endearing, so normal and yet compelling about all of the Malkins - Vladimir, Natalia and Evgeni. This is one family drama I can get behind.
The transformation from 2006, when they looked like strangers in a strange land, is complete during these 2009 playoffs. There's Vlad, rejoicing, high-fiving and hugging other Penguins fans around him. There, too, is Natalia, who appears to be sporting an updated hairdo, waving her Penguins home white towel, exploding with unbridled ecstasy at every great play.
Perhaps it is because they take such palpable joy in their son's accomplishments that the fans embraced them, both literally and figurative. (They've become recognizable Pittsburgh style celebs with fans back-slapping and hugging them everywhere they go.) It's a genuine love affair on the side of Pittsburgh fans. I don't think the Malkins will have to pay for a drink in this town for a long time to come.