BASEL, Switzerland – Far away from San Jose, and far away from St. Petersburg and the Russian sports papers, Evgeni Nabokov began to prepare for the new season in Basel, playing his first exhibition game for his new team a week ago.
Nabokov had to show patience when trying to kick-start his career in the historical Swiss city at the River Rhine.
Former Russian national goalkeeper Maxim Sokolov and Jakub Stepanek, a Czech national team netminder, were playing while Nabokov, the guy who signed a four-year contract reportedly worth $6 million per year, had to watch from the tribune.
Nabokov finally got a chance in SKA’s fourth game of the tournament, a 4-2 defeat vs. Slovan Bratislava. whose entire roster probably makes less money than St. Petersburg’s new goalkeeper.
Since St. Petersburg won the Western Conference of the KHL regular season earlier this year, but was ousted in the 1/8 finals by Dinamo Riga, the club has been looking for new superstars.
But new coach Ivano Zanatta is under pressure to build a team that can gel immediately. It’s not an easy task. Apart from Nabokov, SKA has signed NHLers Maxim Afinogenov and Denis Grebeshkov for this season and the roster already includes Alexei Yashin.
And it’s not a secret that the club’s management wants to add superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, whose 17-year contract with the New Jersey Devils has not been approved by the NHL.
Nabokov left for St. Petersburg after spending ten NHL seasons with the San Jose Sharks.
“It wasn’t easy for me to leave San Jose. It was a great time there. Half of the NHL teams are dreaming about having the success we had. The only thing we didn’t do was winning the Stanley Cup. But now I’m here and that’s the life as a professional sportsman,” said Nabokov.
“You have always to be aware that you might have to change places at any time. I’m happy that I was there for such a long time and the organization was really great. I had offers from other NHL clubs, but I wanted to evaluate all my options.
“Russia is my home and I like to play there. The reason why I signed – it was a bit of everything. The Olympics in Sochi, the SKA team is pretty good, and in the NHL the teams are not sure what they can do because of the salary cap situation.”
Nabokov will be joined by his American wife Tabitha and their two kids, who will start learning Russian, soon. “They should know their roots and the culture of the country,” the 35-year-old said.
Right now Nabokov is looking for a new apartment and he is trying getting used to this rather dramatic change in his career.
“I’m just getting used to the city, to the ice, to the team and everything that’s going around the league,” he said. “I’m watching the games, I’m practising and getting ready for the games. St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. The traffic is crazy and the way people drive is a little bit different than in the States, but I’m trying to get used to it.”
Nabokov is one of several Russian internationals who came back to their motherland since Russian top clubs started offering NHL-like contracts, after the Russian hockey landscape was reorganized in 2008 with the founding of the KHL.
He thinks that Russian players like to play at home and that the trend could continue. This is a drastic change from the ‘90s when so many players left.
KHL President Alexander Medvedev recently presented a study which showed that 250 Russian players left for North America in the last ten years, but only 15 succeeded in the NHL. Out of those who returned, only ten players were able to continue their professional career in Russia.
Inspired by his father Viktor, who tended the net in Yekaterinburg and Ust-Kamenogorsk, Evgeni became a goalkeeper, too, representing Russia in two Olympic Games.
“I followed his steps. My father was everything to me,” Nabokov said. “He was my coach, he was my dad, he showed me a lot and did lot of good things for me and my career. He was excited when I came to Russia, the whole family was, I’m sure he will watch me more often now.”
Since being drafted in the ninth round and leaving for San Jose and the AHL’s Kentucky Thoroughblades in 1997, a lot has changed in Russia.
“Russia wasn’t close to what it is now thirteen years ago,” Nabokov explained. “At least when it comes to Moscow and St. Petersburg, as I haven’t been anywhere else yet. They belong to the best cities in the world now.”
Another former NHL star joining “Piter” is Maxim Afinogenov. He spent nine years with the Buffalo Sabres before having a 61-point season with the Atlanta Thrashers. But the 30-year-old doesn’t want to move around too much anymore and the uncertain situation about the NHL’s participation or non-participation in future Olympic Winter Games also brought him back to Russia.
“In four years we have the Olympics in Russia and I got a good opportunity to prepare with a good organization in St. Petersburg. That was the main reason,” the Moscow native said. “I want to be on one team and not move around. I got some offers in the U.S., but it was for one or two years and I think it’s good to play at home. I’m not that old yet and I think I can be helpful for the team. That’s why I signed a contract for five plus one years with SKA.”
While the big city seems to be a good fit for Afinogenov, he has yet to adjust to the Russian game. But looking back at the 2004-05 lockout, hockey fans in St. Petersburg can be hopeful. It was the year Afinogenov came back to his former team Dynamo Moscow to claim his first national championship, contributing 35 points in 46 games.
“I haven’t been on the ice that much yet with St. Petersburg and I have to get used to the different ice size,” he said, “but I think I will be in good shape and play much better eventually. The more I practise, the more I’m going to get used to the new things.”
Asked about the quarterfinal loss to Canada in Vancouver, Nabokov tries to put things in perspective when answering: “It’s not that easy to win the Olympics. Canada didn’t win for a long time before Salt Lake City in 2002. It’s not easy to be one of the favourites every single time. I think our time will come, but there’s a lot of work ahead of us. We have to pay attention to the details and change a couple of things.”
In Vancouver, he noted how more and more nations are able to compete for medals.
“Nowadays you can play against Switzerland and you know it won’t be easy to win,” he said. “Ten years ago you played against Switzerland and you knew that you were going to win. Their hockey clubs and the national team have improved a lot. And it’s the same case with Germany or Norway to name other examples. While there were four or five teams that were able to compete you have eight or nine now. So we really have to prepare ourselves well.”
Before anything else, Nabokov wants to win with St. Petersburg. With tens of millions in the budget, the club chaired by league president and IIHF Council member Alexander Medvedev wants to claim its first ever national championship.
St. Petersburg might have lost its status as Russia’s capital after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but with the magnificent Gagarin Cup the city of tsars hopes to bring back a different piece of jewellery to St. Petersburg, to crown itself as Russia’s hockey capital.