'Geno' not flashy or a marketer's dream


His Pittsburgh Penguins teammates call him "Geno,'' but there are a few other appropriate nicknames for Evgeni Malkin.


His Pittsburgh Penguins teammates call him "Geno,'' but there are a few other appropriate nicknames for Evgeni Malkin.

Like, say, Robin, Tonto, Boo Boo, Tattoo ("Zee plane!''), Garfunkel, Mr. Smithers, Ed McMahon (or Andy Richter, if you want to be current).

Malkin has spent the first three years of his brilliant young NHL career being hockey's ultimate second fiddle. Drafted second ... right after Ovechkin. Arrives in Pittsburgh ... right after Crosby. And he has been stuck in that whopper of a double-shadow ever since.

"He is overshadowed and I can never understand why,'' says Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who ranks Malkin among the most dangerous players he has ever faced. "People always seem to just gravitate towards one or two players in a sport. Malkin is like Dwayne Wade this year in the NBA, having an amazing season, but everybody just talks about Kobe and LeBron.''

He's right. Sidney and Ovie have become the NHL's Kobe and LeBron, at least in terms of popularity and hype.

Ever since they came into the league, "Crosby or Ovechkin?'' has been the hockey equivalent of "Ginger or Mary-Anne?'' And either-or debates don't usually have a third option (Mrs. Howell?) But you'd better make room for one now.

Malkin is running away with the scoring race and has led (yes, I know ... with Crosby) the Penguins on a warp-speed ascent up the Eastern Conference standings. After a stirring five-point performance Tuesday, he heard chants of "MVP! MVP!'' from a smitten home crowd.

And yet outside the Pittsburgh city limits, almost every fan-player-coach-analyst you ask about the Hart still picks Ovechkin without hesitation. (And until this week, most had Zach Parise second.) Malkin might just be the most productive afterthought the game has ever seen.

"I had a reporter ask me yesterday if I thought he was an MVP candidate, and I said, 'Candidate? Are you nuts?' He has been the best player in the league all season long,'' says Malkin's teammate and former roommate Maxim Talbot. "He gets no attention whatsoever. It's ridiculous.''

There is, of course, a logical explanation for this. Ovechkin and Crosby don't cast shadows, but eclipses.

Everything Ovechkin does or says is marketing gold. He oozes charisma. Geno just doesn't have that particular gene-o.

"He's just a different person than Ovechkin,'' says agent J.P Barry, whose firm represents Malkin and Crosby. "He's more reserved and laid back. Ovechkin is outgoing and in your face.''

That contrast was clear at an after-party at the NHL all-star weekend in Montreal. Ovechkin danced madly atop a couch in a VIP area overlooking the club, four girls in tow, several more climbing over one another looking for a chance to ... umm ... play on his line. Meanwhile, 30 feet away, Malkin sat quietly with a couple of friends, unnoticed, and seemingly content that way.

Their frosty relationship (which dates back to a run-in between Ovechkin and one of Malkin's close friends at a Russian bar) did thaw that weekend, thanks to peace-maker Ilya Kovalchuk. Malkin even helped Ovechkin with his props during the skills event.

But they aren't friends.

Crosby doesn't have Ovechkin's flair, either, but he also possesses something Malkin never will: Canada. In his back pocket.

Sidney has been a national icon since ... oh ... peewee. His boy(wonder)-next-door, straight-as-an-arrow image is like porn to corporate marketers. Sid sells. And thus, he is EVERYWHERE.

Malkin, with the exception of a lucrative equipment deal with Nike-Bauer, has not had a single North American endorsement opportunity.

"To be fair, not many hockey players do, outside of Sid and Ovechkin,'' Barry says. "Evgeni just doesn't speak the language well enough yet. If you can't speak English, it's hard to do commercials, but I think the opportunities will come.''

Malkin's friends say he is charming and funny, and the English is coming, slowly. His buddies and teammates used to chuckle at his replies to their texts, which would usually consist of nothing but a "K,'' a "$'' (they have no idea what that meant), or a "Da,'' the Russian word for yes. Now, there are actual words in complete sentences.

(Yes, this is what we've come to. We judge someone's communication skills by the quality of their texts.)

"He is much more comfortable now,'' Talbot says. "We have a shootout at the end of every practice, and one day he couldn't score and I couldn't miss. He starts yelling at me, "Max, this is not possible, you cannot score, you have no hands!'''

The ability to chirp in English is not the only sign of Malkin's growing comfort. He has finally moved into his own house after living with teammate/full-time translator Sergei Gonchar for the past two years.

Gonchar was his security blanket. He discarded it. And maybe, just maybe, he is about to do the same with those two unshakable shadows.

"Two years ago was Sid's year. Last year was Ovechkin's year. And when it is over, I believe this will be remembered as Geno's year,'' Barry says.

K. Da. $.

James Duthie is the host of the NHL on TSN

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