NHL

Number 71… I Half

Number 71… I Half

Birman, who had joined the Penguins ticket office in 1999 after emigrating from the Ukraine a few years earlier, was told he might have to accompany the young Russian to dinner at Mario Lemieux’s house to translate.

“But then they called back and said, hey, Sergei Gonchar is leaving,” Birman said, adding with his usual hearty laugh, “That makes sense. Best offer.”

Birman ended up meeting Malkin the next day, when then-VP of communications Tom McMillan took him to the locker room after practice.

In later years, of course Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang been Geno’s two brothers: a Canadian and a French Canadian. But Gonchar and Birman have been like father figures to Malkin, providing support in all aspects of life.

So on Wednesday, the Penguins included them as part of the celebration honoring Malkin’s 1,000.th game The team surprised Malkin by flying Gonchar from Dallas, where he resides with his family, after flying Evgeni’s wife Anna and son Nikita to Chicago.

“The last three days, I’m crying every day. Because the team gives me so many surprises,” Malkin said. “My wife and son are coming to the Chicago game, before the game I have no idea. Come tonight, I have no idea either. Lots of good stuff. I’m excited.”

Then, after the game, Malkin surprised Birman with a special jersey that was a memento of his early days.

After he began translating for Malkin in 2006, the ticket office one day surprised Birman with T-shirts made in his honor that said “71 ½,” and George was half of it. A day or two later, when Birman accompanied Malkin to his first televised interview on AT&T SportsNet, anchor Stan Savran took the shirt off and put it on during the taping.

And during the Penguins’ internal media day right before training camp, Malkin brought up that interview and how much he enjoyed it. The memory inspired the team to make a jersey for Birman with his name and “71 ½” on the back, and Malkin gave it to him in the locker room. following the celebration on Wednesday.

“I have a present for you,” he told Birman, before handing it over. About him, she wrote in Russian: “To my best friend.” At first, Birman couldn’t believe what was happening, and then he was speechless.

“It’s the least we can do for you, George,” they told him.

Gonchar’s role in helping Malkin has been well documented, but Birman’s has been behind the scenes all these years. He has provided assistance to Malkin with anything and everything he could possibly need, including understanding the fine print of contracts and being a liaison between the team and his family. Like Gonchar, Birman also opened his home to Malkin, with George and his wife Valentina inviting him to lunch with their two children… and Evgeni practically becoming the third.

“I feel like I really needed that support,” Birman said. “A lot of people who know me and him say, how are your kids? And that includes Geno. He’s part of my family.”

Birman is a kind and jovial man loved by all who know him: his family, friends, colleagues and customers in his role as Senior Director of Club Seat Sales and Retention with the Penguins . Everything he has done for Malkin has been out of the goodness of his heart, as he remembers how difficult it was for him when he first came to the United States in 1991.

Birman barely knew the first five letters of the English alphabet, and it was incredibly difficult for him. There was a time when Birman was about to go home, but the moment passed and he decided to continue to pursue his dream of playing hockey. He had been around sports all his life in Ukraine, working for a team there. But Birman knew it would take several years to learn enough of the language to work on a team here, so he began learning by immersing himself in everyday life.

Birman’s jobs included helping his uncle, who is a plumber; work at a car dealership; and working at Kaufmann’s department store. He tirelessly faxed his resume, and after George and Valentina were married on July 3, 1999, he got a call from the Penguins the following Monday to come in for an interview.

He was hired as a telemarketer amid the team’s bankruptcy struggles, working hourly until the team offered Birman a full-time position a few months later. He remembers being in the office on the day of the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery with then-GM Ken Sawyer, who stopped by after the Capitals won the first overall pick and the right to draft Alex Ovechkin.

“He said, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t make us the first overall pick,” Birman said. “But he said, I talked to people, and they said in the long run, maybe you have a better player with Malkin than you do with Ovechkin. That combination, Geno and Sid, I mean, you can’t script any better than them. because one really cares about the other. It’s amazing.”

And Malkin couldn’t have asked for a better support system upon arriving in a completely foreign country where he didn’t know the language, or even just how to navigate everyday life. Having two amazing people like Gonchar and Birman there to help Malkin feel comfortable after Evgeni had to leave his loved ones behind in Russia is a big reason for his success.

“I remember at the end of my freshman or sophomore year, Tom McMillan sent me an email saying thank you for helping Geno. You’re a big part of who he is,” Birman said. “He’s the one who plays on the ice. He’s the one who wins and scores. But I remember that first Cup, I have a video from the Russian media where at the end of the game I almost jumped on him, and I remember that hug.

“For Geno to win three Stanley Cups, and everything else, I think good things happen to good people. That’s what it is. To me, what’s happening to him, to play 1,000 games, that’s well-deserved for him “.

Birman stopped coming into the locker room to translate around 2010, but has remained instrumental in many ways to Malkin and the Penguins. He coordinated many of the congratulatory videos, including those of Malkin’s parents and brother, and also helps Evgeny and Anna on a personal level whenever they need it. Their families often spend time at each other’s homes, and the plan is for Birman to host Evgeny, Anna and Nikita for Thanksgiving today.

“He’s my best friend in Pittsburgh,” Malkin said. “He’s a good family man, a good guy. He’s still my very, very good friend.”





#Number #71..

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