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FANS MAKE JOURNEY FROM RUSSIA TO WATCH PENGUINS THIS WEEK

Thursday, 04.13.2006 / 12:00 AM / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins

The Russians are coming.

Actually, they’re here already.

Evgeni Mihkeyev and Yaroslav Tretiakov made the long trip from Russia to the United States to watch three Penguins games this week.

The two Moscow residents are part of the Penguins Support Crew, which gathers regularly at a sports bar to watch the handful of Penguins games broadcast live on television in Russia every season.

“It’s just a sports bar, but our company of people goes there to watch every live Penguins game. There are not so many of them that are broadcast live. There are maybe five, 10 or 15 a year. It depends,” Mihkeyev said. “Right now, we can see a lot of Philadelphia Flyers games, but we don’t like them.”

So, the long-time Penguins fans decided to come see their favorite team in person.

“We just decided it was time to come here,” said Mihkeyev, who is 33. “We were lucky enough to compose the money and free time to make this trip. Who knows what will happen for us the next year, but this year it worked out.”

Their journey from Moscow began Tuesday night in – of all places – Philadelphia when they watched the Penguins drop a 4-3 decision to the rival Flyers.

“That game was very exciting. It was one of the most-wonderful nights in my life,” said Tretiakov, who is 27. “There was a lot of emotion and it was a really strong matchup with Philadelphia. I received a lot of emotion and fun.”

The two took traveled overnight via bus to Pittsburgh, where they attended Penguins practice Wednesday. They got the chance to go into the locker room to meet the players afterward.

“It was our long dream, I would say,” Mihkeyev said. “We are supporting the team for quite a long period of time and it was a very, very interesting and a very, very desirable thing to come to this arena one day and support the team from the stadium, to see the game and to say all our best to the players and all the people who are working for this team.”

The two Russians met with Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who also hails from Russia, as well as Penguins forward Konstantin Koltsov, a Belarus native.

“There are not many Penguins fans who speak Russian, so I was surprised when I heard them say a couple words in Russian. Then, they explained to me who they were and I was happy to meet them,” Gonchar said. “It is cool. I never knew we had a fan club back home. It’s a very exciting thing to know there are people back home following only our games and our play. I am happy I had a chance to see them and talk with them.”

Gonchar and Koltsov gave the two some autographed memorabilia.

“I gave them some sticks and some jerseys,” Gonchar said. “I wanted to make sure they look nice when they are cheering for us.”

The two Russians were thrilled with their inside look at the Penguins.

“For us, it’s a big pleasure to come here. It’s a special thing that we can come here to the locker room and talk to the guys and take some pictures,” Mihkeyev said. “It will be a good memory for us, of course. We will try to take all these emotions and transfer them to our friends in Russia.”

They had special T-shirts designed with their Penguins Support Crew logo and distributed them to all the Penguins players Wednesday.

“We made these shirts right before the trip. It was a very long-lasting idea. Now, it’s being realized,” Mihkeyev said. “We are producing the same type of T-shirts for the players. As soon as any existing or ex-Penguin comes to Russia to play hockey or on a tour, we will do our best to present this T-shirt to him.

“This is how we can support the team and to make it maybe more interesting and amazing for the players to be a part of this team.”

Mihkeyev became interested in the Penguins after they beat the Red Army, 4-2, in a 1989 Summit Series exhibition game at Mellon Arena.

“The Red Army club was very strong at that time and the Penguins won 4-2,” he said. “They won easily and it was a very big surprise for me to see there were some very good teams in the NHL that could beat the Red Army.”

He and his friends were hooked and craved any and all Penguins information.

“After that, the Penguins won the first Stanley Cup. It was not big news for us because we did not have enough information at the time. But, still that news came to us,” he said. “The next time, a big sports newspaper appeared [in Russia] and I followed the second Stanley Cup season with this big newspaper. Then, then Internet appeared and other sources of information.”

And, finally, the Penguins Support Crew. It has a first-hand look at the Penguins’ future in phenom Evgeni Malkin. The 19-year-old Russian star was the second-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Mihkeyev and Tretiakov can’t wait to see Malkin in Pittsburgh, which could happen next season.

“We are very impressed with him. Right now, he is really one of the most-dominating players in the [Russian Super] League,” Mihkeyev said. “I think it’s time for him to come [to the NHL]. I think he has already matured for this league like [Washington’s Alexander] Ovechkin.”

Tretiakov is most impressed with Malkin’s all-around game.

“I have a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey with Malkin’s name on the back. He is my favorite player in Russia. I hope he will help the Penguins next season,” he said. “I don’t really like Ovechkin. He is a one-way player like [Pavel] Bure. So, I think Malkin will provide more help in defense and penalty killing. I think his future is great in the NHL.”

The two Russians attended the Penguins’ game against the Rangers at Mellon Arena on Thursday. They wrap up their whirlwind trip with a trek to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday to see the Penguins prospects play there. Then, they will head to New York to watch the Penguins play the Islanders on Saturday before they return to Russia.

“Yes, it’s a busy trip,” Mihkeyev said. “You have to take much from your life if you have such an opportunity. It’s not the time to rest. It’s time to get more and more from your life.”

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