In 2008, Steven Stamkos didn't get to say goodbye to Sarnia as an official first overall pick. The next big Sarnia Sting player is more fortunate
Edmonton Oilers No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov played 107 games for the Sting, scored 80 goals and got 170 points. Monday night, as Team Russia's captain, he returns to the town where he matured into a top pick.
"Honestly, this town has become my home. These two years opened the doors to pro hockey," says Yakupov, whose squad leads the Subway Super Series 6-3 entering its second game vs. Team OHL. "I loved playing hockey there. I felt comfortable. Now a lot of folks text me things like 'Hey, we're waiting for you, come here soon! The arena's going to be packed!' It's great."
"I'm glad to come back," continues the highly touted Oilers prospect. "Everyone says it's going to be a fun hockey game. The people are waiting for it. I appreciate the opportunity to play once again in a town I spent my last two years in. We had a great team, great arena and terrific fans. I loved it. Everything was just great."
Yakupov also believes there will be no conflicts with the fans because of the story that happened earlier this season. Sarnia tried to keep Yakupov following the NHL lockout, saying he still had one year left on his contract, but Yakupov won the case and left to the KHL. In 13 games, he has scored 10 goals and notched four assists for Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
"I don't think there's going to be any sort of conflict," says Yakupov. "I forgot all about this story and I don't want to talk about it anymore. I'm going there only with positive emotions. I'm eager to see once again the people I lived with and played for the last two years. It's going to be fun to talk to them again."
Coming into the season, there was little doubt about Yakupov playing professionally. It's a fair assumption he would have made the Oilers roster and therefore wouldn't be able to suit up for his nation for the Super Series. When a guy is so clearly above junior hockey level, you have to wonder what motivates him in games like these.
Capitals prospect and Yakupov's former linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov found himself in a very similar position at the last world juniors. According to him, a true level of a hockey player shows only when he plays with his peers. Is that something Nail can relate to?
"I agree with him. Sometimes you score goals in bundles when you play against younger guys. Sometimes you score in bundles when you play with older guys because they think faster and create more opportunities for you to get points. So you get points because of your teammates," explains the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder. "On the other hand, when you play against your peers, you play against some guys who are better than you and some guys who aren't. I think it's more difficult to play against your peers — no matter what team are they on. You have to bring your A-game to the table. Every game is difficult. It doesn't matter if you play against Canadians or Americans or someone else. So, yeah, I agree with Evgeny."
Yakupov was projected to go No. 1 overall for a long time and had superstar status in the OHL. However, it really doesn't matter when you make a jump to a pro team. There you are no superstar, you're just another rookie. Did it affect Yakupov's play in any way?
"I didn't feel like I was special when I played in Canada," he says. "I didn't pay much attention to what people were saying. It's the same thing for me in Russia. I'm just happy to be on the team. I'm happy to play. My transition to the new team went smooth. I'm not treated like a young guy over there, you know? I'm not being pushed around. I'm just a regular guy on the team. We don't have guys who think too much of themselves. So I don't feel like a schmelt or anything."
So just you know there's a picture of Nail Yakupov in the Hockey Hall Of Fame and he's seen it as well as everyone else on Team Russia. They visited the shrine on Friday afternoon.
"I first saw the picture this past June and I was shocked," says Nail with a laugh. "Now I saw it for the second time. I showed it to the guys, they looked at it for a few seconds and that was it."
Yakupov doesn't think too much of himself despite being drafted first overall and having his picture showcased in the Hall Of Fame. When he talks about his experience at the Subway Super Series it's always 'we' and never 'I.'.
"First of all, beating Canada always feels good. Second of all, we made history. That's a bonus. Bu then again we're not getting ahead of ourselves or anything. So we won, big deal. We forgot all about that game. We rested for a few days and got ready for another game. We keep moving forward.
"Our coach [Mikhail Varnakov] means business when he tells us that we have to get out there and play hard, not just skate around," adds Yakupov. "We have proven that we can play well and win games. We've proven that Team OHL can be beaten. We're looking for a win in every game and it doesn't matter who do we play against — Team Japan, Team Germany or Team Canada."
New-look OHL opponent
Yakupov believes Game 4 will be very different. And make no mistake — he wants to shine in this one. Team OHL will have a vastly different look since league rules that are designed to limit player fatigue essentially require creating almost two whole teams.
"I know Team OHL is going to have a different set of players this time," he says. "I talked to one guy who played for Canada and he told me there'd be like just six returnees from Game 3 in Sarnia. I know the guys who are going to play against us. It's going to be a different game. It's going to be interesting. Playing in Sarnia gives me double motivation. I didn't play there for two years for nothing. I want to my last game there to be a good one. I want to win it with Team Russia but I also want to play well myself so that the local fans would remember me."