When I first started watching hockey, I learned a lot about defense by watching Sergei Gonchar. He moved the puck so well and never seemed to look tired on the ice no matter how many minutes he'd logged. He brought an absolute aura of calm to the ice in even the most frenzied situations. He’s also my reference for what it means to quarterback a power play. He read the ice so well and clearly excelled at thinking ahead of the play.
Gonchar was the first round pick, 14th overall, of the Washington Capitals in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft.
In the 1998-99 season, Gonchar became the first Russian defenseman to score over 20 goals in regular-season play. He was regarded as one of the most offensive defenseman in the NHL and proved it by having eight 50 point or greater seasons in his career. He had 2 career high 67 point seasons, 2002-03 with the Capitals and 2006-07 with the Penguins. (HHOF)
Beyond his value to the Penguins on the ice, Gonchar will long be remembered for hosting young Evgeni Malkin when he first came to Pittsburgh. Sarge, his wife, and daughter Natalie, are credited with providing stability and familiarity so crucial to Malkin’s development once he left Russia to sign with the Penguins on Sept. 5, 2006
"My daughter speaks English better than Evgeni,’’ Gonchar told NHL.com. in 2006. "They actually started learning the language at the same time, two years ago. Natalie was going to school and Evgeni just moved over from Russia and was beginning his NHL career. She speaks perfect English and sometimes gives Evgeni a hard time….After learning a new word in school, Natalie will come home and say to Evgeni, 'Now repeat after me,’ and begin teaching him,’’
When Malkin stayed at the Gonchars, it was reported it would be temporary (a couple of months) but Geno ended up having a room in their home for over 2 years. At the time he said, "I didn’t expect it was going to happen, but I am very thankful. I probably would not be playing as I am right now if Sergei and his family didn’t help."
If you read what NHL.com reported at the time, Geno was a big help around the Gonchar household. If you read what Dave Molinari wrote…..well, it was something different. "Once in a while, he helps me move the garbage [cans] outside, then bring them back," Gonchar said. "That's the only thing he does."
No matter about the landlord's claims, it’s clear that the Gonchar/Malkin relationship was good for Geno and good for the Penguins. "I think Sergei's been invaluable," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said at the time, speaking of Gonchar's contribution to the team as well as mentoring of Malkin.
Sergei Gonchar was traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2010 and many wondered if not having his close friend by his side would effect Malkin's game. The 2010-11 season was disastrous for Malkin on the ice because of his torn ACL and MCL but many speculated that the moodier than usual Geno missed his friends the Gonchars off the ice.
"He's my best friend," Malkin said of his mentor, Gonchar.
The relationship between Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar was so tight and so well-know that it was rumored when the Dallas Stars acquired Gonchar (2013), it was an attempt to lure Malkin away from Pittsburgh. Speculation was fueled when Evgeni Malkin’s father told SovSport that the Dallas Stars “offered my son a bigger contract than Pittsburgh” before Malkin had reached free agency in the NHL.
At the time, the potential tampering was reported by PuckDaddy as:
(Perhaps) The Dallas Stars hoped talks between Malkin and the Penguins would go sideways. They sign Gonchar to be their power-play quarterback….Maybe it’s Gonchar, unprovoked or provoked, who mentions to Malkin that the Dallas Stars can offer him a max contract extension ($12 million per season) if he forces a trade to Dallas from the Penguins, making him a very wealthy player and getting out from under the Unofficial Sidney Crosby Salary Cap in Pittsburgh. Plus he gets to play with his mentor/buddy Gonchar.
Everything was denied and nothing panned out but so strong was the bond between Malkin and Gonchar that the hockey world was rocked by the possibility.
When Gonchar was asked where his career was headed in 2013, he said, “You can't plan the way you're going to finish it. You don't know how it's going to turn out.” He did express his love for his time in Pittsburgh, “I had a special time there,” Gonchar said. “They are such great, great players. It was probably the highlight of my career. To be honest, not that many hockey players have a chance to play with the two best players. It will be there always for me.”
In 2013, a slightly more articulate Geno expressed his gratitude for Gonchar, “He helped me become (a) good player in (the) NHL,” Malkin said, “Sergei (would) teach me hockey, life, America. He is like (a) brother for me. Even now, he is not in Pittsburgh, (but) he is my best friend.”
Sidney Crosby remembers him as a calming influence on the entire team, “He was just so calm, and that kind of wore off on everyone,” Crosby said. “He brought it in the room. He brought it on the ice. He just seemed like he never really panicked. Everything was always calm, cool and collected with him. That carried over.”
The Gonchars threw team parties, organized events and helped create a family atmosphere that is now an organizational hallmark. Gonchar was usually the first player at practice and quick to share training tips. Brooks Orpik offered (2013) “Not enough has been made about his role here. It wasn't just with Geno. There is that because they really are great friends, but Gonch was big for everybody. You can ask anyone who played with him who is still in this room. I don't think you'll find a more respected guy who's been here.”
I was surprised when the Pens signed Sarge to a Professional tryout contract this season but he was hopeful about what he could contribute to the team. He told The Trib's Jason Mackey, “I can share (my) experience with them. I’ve been around for a few years. I've been in different situations. You talk with them. There are a few things that I've already shared. I'll try to help this team any way I can. Helping the young guys is one thing that I can do.”
The Pens announced Saturday they were releasing Gonchar from his tryout contract. The 41 year-old blue-liner has played 1,301 NHL games, scored 220 goals (102 on the power play) and recorded 811 points in his career. It may be the end of the his playing career, but Jim Rutherford said during that presser that should Gonchar not sign elsewhere to play that he would like for the defenseman to stay in the organization in some capacity.
There is no doubt that Gonchar could be a mentor for all of the young defensemen in the organization as well as young Russian Sergei Plotnikov. His input on the power play would could make all the difference and it would be great to see Sarge and Geno back together.