Superstar sniper Evgeni Malkin reaped a trio of trophies at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on Wednesday. The Magic Man from Magnitogorsk completed a rare hat trick by collecting the Hart (MVP), Art Ross (scoring) and Ted Lindsay (NHLPA MVP) honors.
Since entering the NHL in 2006, Malkin has been considered among the NHL’s elite even when injuries stalled his career. But the cultural divide was present every time he came to the stage: each of the presenters seemed to have a different way of pronouncing his name. Malkin himself also reflected that divide as he delivered his acceptance speeches in halting, heavily accented English.
While his performances on the ice are more articulate than his words, his elocution is also a poignant reminder that Malkin is a rare person in the National Hockey League: he is a successful Russian player who has appeared in the NHL playoffs. That number had been declining every year since 2000, when there were 30. In 2011, only six Russian speakers made it to the post-season. Forty-four Russians were drafted in 2000; only six were drafted last season, an increase of four from the previous year.
This is an issue that dates back to the days of the Soviet Union and the “Iron Curtain,” when the divide was much more prominent. The Summit Series of 1972 brought Eastern European hockey into the Western spotlight as never before. Some forward-thinkers recognized that the way they played the game had much value and many lessons that Western players could learn, but it would be 20 years before the trickle of talent from the East would turn into a flowing stream.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs boss Harold Ballard swore he would never have a Russian on his team while he owned the club, and he kept his word. Leafs cheerleader and television pundit Don Cherry delighted in hectoring Russians for their perceived work ethic and the contrasts to “our good Canadian and Ontario boys.” His aggressive opinions on the subject only serve to incite, rather than provide any actual insight, and reinforce ugly prejudices and stereotypes.
Some can roll with the punches and adapt: most have a difficult time and are not entirely successful. Some find it difficult to learn English and to adjust to the pace of the game with its smaller ice area and punishing hitting. For every Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, there are many more like Alexander Radulov, who looks likely to return to the Kontinental Hockey League — his agent has said that the 25-year-old forward would probably play for HC CKSA Moscow next season.
Despite the presence of the KHL, the tide may be turning: a dozen Russians participated in the 2012 playoffs. Nail Yakupov, Maxim Grigorenko and Alex Galchenyuk are some of the more prominent names expected to be called in this year’s NHL Entry Draft; their success will depend not only on whether they’ll be able to crank up their game to the major-league level, but also on their ability to adapt to North American culture and its demands — and its obstacles.