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It's official: Penguins sign Russian star Malkin

PITTSBURGH -- Finally, Evgeni Malkin wasn't worried about
hiding his emotions or himself. He signed the contract he wanted to
sign, with the team he wants to play for.

Malkin, under so much pressure to keep playing in Russia that he
hid out for five days in Finland to escape his Russian team, signed
his first NHL contract Tuesday with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

No arm-twisting or middle-of-the-night negotiations were needed
to make him sign a deal worth at least $3 million and probably much
more. The 20-year-old Malkin was so determined to play in North
America this year, one of Russia's best-known sports figures was
willing to risk his image back home to do so.

"His dream was to come to Pittsburgh and start his career in
the NHL, and he had to go through a lot in the last couple of weeks
to achieve that," Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said. "It's always
difficult when you've got a different country and a different
language, and it will be tough for him for the next few months."

It has already been a tough time for arguably the best player in
the world not previously in the NHL. Malkin, a gifted but not
one-dimensional scorer and playmaker, is expected to team with
19-year-old Sidney Crosby to give Pittsburgh a dynamic 1-2 center
combination.

After signing a one-year deal last month to remain with his
hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk, reportedly at 3 a.m. following
hours of persuasion, he immediately regretted the decision and
phoned agent J.P. Barry for help.

Barry arranged to meet Malkin at the Helsinki airport when
Metallurg arrived for training camp on Aug. 12, and the two
secretly left together. They stayed hidden in a hotel there for
five days until Malkin was granted a U.S. visa.

The agent wasn't as concerned as much for Malkin's safety as he
was that the Russian team, which was still in town, would try to
get him back.

"We were worried that whenever there's a mystery and someone
can't be found, they would try to look for him and if they could
find him, they would try to continue the psychological pressure,"
Barry said. "We didn't want that to happen. It was really
necessary for us to keep him away from that possibility."

According to Barry, Malkin was followed to his home -- the agent
isn't certain by whom -- whenever the team felt he had been in
contact with his North American-based agents.

Once Malkin was gone, Metallurg general director Gennady
Velichkin rebuked his star and threatened to sue the Penguins.
Barry expects Metallurg to file for an injunction that would
prevent Malkin from playing in the NHL, though no Russian team has
ever successfully done so with a player once he has left.

Malkin said he has patched up his relationship with Velichkin
the last few weeks, after he was initially worried about how the
team and its fans would react.

"I definitely was a little concerned," he said, speaking
through interpreter Olga McQueen. "But, knowing him for so many
years, I had to believe that he wouldn't go for any harsh measures
toward me. After I had my visa obtained, I called my parents and
informed them that everything was fine and I was doing great. They
contacted Mr. Velichkin and actually now they are doing well and
Mr. Velichkin doesn't have any hard feelings against me."

Among those supporting Malkin's decision was Russian national
team coach Slava Bykov, who said the star forward should be allowed
to play wherever he wants. Three weeks ago, Malkin faxed a letter
of resignation to Metallurg which, according to his agents, allows
him under Russian law to quit his job there.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy to get him out of there,"
Lemieux said. "We have to listen to the player and where he wants
to play. He really wants to be here in Pittsburgh, and we'll do
everything we can to help him out."

Malkin spent three weeks training in Los Angeles area before
arriving in Pittsburgh on Monday night. He had a whirlwind first 24
hours there in which he dined at Lemieux's house, spent his first
night in his new city and took part in an informal early morning
skate with players such as Crosby before attending a news
conference.

Malkin will live initially with Penguins defenseman Sergei
Gonchar, a Russian Olympic teammate who will help acclimate Malkin
to his new team, league and surroundings. The Penguins open rookie
training camp on Friday.

Malkin's contract is identical to that reached by last season's
rookie of the year, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
Ovechkin was drafted No. 1 in 2004, immediately ahead of Malkin.

Malkin's base salary in the three-year deal will be $984,2000,
plus incentives worth $2.85 million per season. Ovechkin's contract
included $850,000 in relatively easy-to-reach incentives and
another $2 million in additional bonuses such as winning a major
league award.

"We have two great ones with Sid and Evgeni," Lemieux said.
"It's going to be exciting here for the next 10-to-15 years."