Number 71 … And A Half

Birman, who had joined the Penguins ticketing department in 1999 after emigrating from Ukraine a few years earlier, was told that he might need 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 going to go,” Birman said, adding with his usual hearty laugh, “That makes sense. Better offer.”

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

In the years since, of course Sidney Crosby and Chris Letang been Geno’s two brothers – one Canadian, and one 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 1,000th game. The team surprised Malkin by flying Gonchar in from Dallas, where he resides with his family, after bringing 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 come to the game in Chicago, before the game I have no idea. Gonch come tonight, I have no idea too. Lots of good things. I’m excited.”

Then, after the game, Malkin surprised Birman with a special jersey that was a nod to their early days.

After he first started translating for Malkin in 2006, one day the ticketing department surprised Birman with T-shirts they had gotten made in his honor that said, “71 ½,” with George being the half. A day or two later, when Birman accompanied Malkin to his first TV interview at AT&T SportsNet, anchor Stan Savran pulled out the T-shirt and donned it during recording.

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

“I have a present for you,” he told Birman, before handing it over. On it, he 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 could do for you, George,” he was told.

Gonchar’s role in helping Malkin has been well-documented, but Birman’s has been behind-the-scenes all of these years. He’s provided assistance to Malkin with anything and everything he might need, like understanding the fine print in contracts, and being a liason between him’s team and his family. Like Gonchar, Birman also opened his home to Malkin, with George and his wife Valentina inviting him over for meals with their two sons … and Evgeni pretty much became the third.

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

Birman is a kind and jovial man who’s beloved by everyone who knows him – his family, his friends, his colleagues, and his clients in his role as Senior Manager 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 upon first arriving in the United States back in 1991.

Birman barely knew the first five letters of the English alphabet, and it was incredibly tough for him. There was a moment where Birman was close to returning home, but the moment passed, and he decided to continue pursuing his dream of being involved in hockey. He had been around the sport all of his life in Ukraine, working for a team there. But Birman knew it would take a few years for him to pick up the language enough to work for a team here, so he began learning by immersing himself in everyday life.

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

He got hired as a telemarketer in the midst of the team’s bankruptcy struggles, working hourly until the team offered eventually offered Birman a full-time position a few months later. He remembers being in the office the day of the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery, with then-CEO Ken Sawyer stopping in after the Capitals won the first overall pick and the right to select Alex Ovechkin.

“He was like, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t get us that first overall pick,” Birman said. “But he said, I talked to people, and they said in the long run, you may have a better player with Malkin then Ovechkin. This combination, Geno and Sid, I mean – you can’t write any better script than them, because one is caring so much about the other one. It’s unbelievable.”

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 how to simply navigate everyday life. Having two amazing individuals 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 either the first or second 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 is playing on the ice. He’s the one who’s winning and scoring. But I remember that very first Cup, I have a video from the Russian media where at the end of the game, I almost jump 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. For me, what is happening to him, playing 1,000 games – that’s so deserved for him.”

Birman stopped coming into the locker room to translate around 2010, but he’s remained instrumental in so many ways for Malkin and the Penguins. He coordinated many of the congratulatory videos, including the ones from Malkin’s parents and brother, and also helps Evgeni 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 Evgeni, Anna and Nikita for Thanksgiving today.

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

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