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“Act like you’ve been there.”
It’s a classic bit of advice passed down to rookies from sage veterans that have long since lost their wide-eyed enthusiasm and formidable passion. It’s a request for class and humility masking a repressed desire to be the guy who slides down the ice on his knees, waves of adulation from the crowd crashing on them as cameras capture the highlight for perpetuity.
Or maybe those sage advisers aren't wired that way, which is to say not wired the way Nail Yakupov is wired.
The Edmonton Oilers rookie batted a puck out of mid-air to tie the Los Angeles Kings with 4.7 seconds left on Thursday night – right after the Oilers’ initial tying goal was waived off – and then proceeded to skate down the ice, drop to his knees and slide into the Edmonton defensive zone before being mobbed by his teammates.
It was reminiscent, to the point of tribute, of Theo Fleury's celebration after scoring the OT goal in Game 6 of the 1991 Smythe Division semifinals against – who else? – the Edmonton Oilers. If this was premeditated by Yakupov, it’s a brilliantly subversive one: Re-imagining a quintessential moment for a rival franchise as his own.
That’s probably giving Yakupov too much credit. It felt very much in the moment and spontaneous. That’s why, by and large, it’s been given a pass by hockey punditry that otherwise bemoans anything that emphasizes the name on the back rather than the logo on the front.
Yakupov’s celebration is the latest litmus test measuring the NHL’s stodgy, homogenous culture and the way it reacts to the ego and personality of – frequently European and Russian – players that call for the spotlight on their achievements.
It appears the snobs are losing.
Sure, there was some blow-back on Yakupov. The Los Angeles Kings, as expected, weren’t fans:
David Staples of Cult of Hockey toed the line between celebrating the rebirth of enthusiasm for Oilers hockey and the death of communal celebrations:
Part of me certainly loved to see Yakupov score, then streak down the ice, fall to his knees and spin round, then bow down low as if he were giving thanks.
But part of me wondered why he wasn’t celebrating with his teammates. I’m old school, I suppose. I like that basketball tradition where once you score a bucket, the first thing you do is point a finger at the guy who passed you the ball, acknowledging him. Same goes for hockey. That’s what we teach on my team.
A fair point. Also fair: We don’t want hockey to turn into soccer. Like, ever. Not in players flopped like they’ve been hit by sniper fire to gain a call. Not in international tournaments taking precedence over the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And not in seeing every player on every goal celebrating as if it’s the last goal that will ever be scored and/or that Jesus Christ just handed them a beer.
What earns them a pass: Spontaneity. It’s the difference between what Yakupov did and what Alex Ovechkin did when he scored his 50th goal in 2009 and did the “Hot Stick” celebration. That was planned. This wasn’t. Hence, the criticism isn’t as voluminous as it was for Ovechkin.
But perhaps it’s also because as the NHL has gained undeniable momentum in the last several years, its players have been pushed farther into the spotlight than ever before.
The 2005 lockout’s ills were soothed by Crosby vs. Ovechkin; Crosby vs. Giroux was the launching pad for last weekend’s record post-lockout ratings. ‘HBO 24/7’ and the NHL Network’s personality driven shows, all thanks to Ross Greenberg, have made stars of players that were previously curiosities: Think Ilya Bryzgalov.
And to every sports writer that questions the celebration because Yakupov is young, or Russian, or young and Russian -- go score the biggest goal of your career, the biggest goal in the last six years of the franchise, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and stand still and solemnly salute the honor of Orr, Howe and Morenz while the crowd roars around you. I can only hope that Yakupov's celebration is just the beginning.
The NHL needs moments like Yakupov’s. It needs signals that moribund franchises are turning the corner. It needs highlights that quickly define a young star’s career. It needs joy. It needs chaos that rattles the anticipated decorum. It needs this -- in moderation, of course.
And it also needs whatever will be coming to Yakupov next time the Kings and Oilers play. Because that's why we'll watch.