UFA – After Russian forward Nail Yakupov started to play professional hockey with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk this season, he hoped to debut with the Edmonton Oilers sooner rather than later.
Yakupov put himself into the history books as the number-one draft pick last summer during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh – an honour fellow countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) and Alexander Ovechkin (2004) received some years before him.
Yakupov was born Nizhnekamsk, not far away from Ufa by Russian standards, in Tatarstan. His father, Rail, worked as a youth coach, team administrator and the head of the youth school at the local club Neftekhimik.
Nail Yakupov started skating at the age of four but was not a hockey fan in childhood.
“Nail didn't watch hockey on TV,” said Yakupov, Sr. “He loved football. Even now he supports Chelsea while I cheer for Manchester United.”
“Do you remember the Champions League final in Moscow, when ManU won in a shootout? In that time we were ready to fight,” he added with a smile.
Yakupov Jr. saved his love for football at least for the warm-up, but hockey has come to be the most important thing for him. At school he practised with boys who were older than him, but he struggled to score. But the agent Alexei Dementiev helped him a lot in the beginning of his career.
“Nail is a very smart guy,” Dementiev said. “Usually, youngsters forget instructions, but he isn't one of them. He learned a lot.”
In the 2009/2010 season Yakupov played at the top junior level in Russia for the MHL’s Reaktor Nizhnekamsk. A KHL debut with the parent team Neftekhimik was unrealistic at that time because they bet on experienced players. That's why he eventually decided to go to Canada and play for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting to learn English and prepare himself for NHL.
To perform in North America was Yakupov’s dream. The family of Alex Galchenyuk, who plays for Team USA in Ufa and is the son of former Dynamo Moscow forward Alexander Galchenyuk, helped him a lot. They lived together, played for Sarnia, and scored a lot of goals. The local fans loved the duo with Russian roots.
“In his first year in Canada, Nail was confronted with a language barrier,” remembered his father Rail. “With Alex and his parents they communicated in Russian. It was when Galchenyuk got injured that my son really learned English.”
Yakupov had played 113 games in his two years in Sarnia and had 175 points (82 goals + 93 assists).
However, at the 2011 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Germany, he was in the shadows of his partners Nikita Kucherov and Mikhail Grigorenko. His 13 (6+7) points during the tournament were all but forgotten.
The Russian team won the U18 bronze medal and eight months later Yakupov was one of the leaders on the U20 national team at the World Juniors in Calgary, although not the main leader. Not yet at least.
The captain and star of the team was Yevgeni Kuznetsov. Yakupov played with him on one line and was responsible for the heavy work. He didn't score goals but was rewarded with nine assists. In overtime of the gold medal game against Sweden, Yakupov suffered a knee injury, but returned to finish the game.
The summer after he was chosen as the first-round pick by the Edmonton Oilers. A surprise? Not at all.
“Igor Larionov taught my son a lot,” Yakupov, Sr said about his son’s agent. “Larionov is an experienced man in the world of hockey. He taught Nail to give interviews and to smile.”
“Our family is built on positive attitude,” added Ulnas, Nail's mother.
“Even foreigners were exhausted after Krikunov's training,” said Rail Yakupov. “But they were always smiling.”
However, success in junior leagues does not necessarily turn into success in senior hockey. For Yakupov the labour conflict in the NHL meant the chance to play professional hockey at home in the KHL while waiting for his debut with the Oilers.
“Real men's hockey was a good school for him,” said Yakupov Sr. “Vladimir Golubovich, Neftekhimik's coach, normally does not trust young players. But he let Nail play.”
Golubovich led Dynamo Moscow to the 1995 championship and also there he relied on experienced players. But he wouldn’t be allowed to keep the city’s greatest prospect on the bench.
Yakupov paid back for the confidence put in him. In 22 games for Neftekhimik he collected 18 (10 +8) points. He was especially successful in October when he scored ten goals.
In November, Yakupov led his team during a tour in Canada with games against All-Star Teams from the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL. But his figures were rather modest with two goals in six games. It's not enough for the captain and the first-line forward.
“Why do you always expect hat tricks from him?” Russian U20 national team coach Mikhail Varnakov replied to the media. “Nail played for team.”
It’s the same words the Russian coach said after the difficult quarter-final game against Switzerland his team won in a shootout when Yakupov didn't come out to talk to journalists.
Probably, he decided that after that game it’s better to keep silence, or to perform before talking.
His number 10 provokes reporters and fans to compare him with forward Pavel Bure, who played in three World Junior Championships and wore the jersey also in the NHL and the Russian men’s national team.
“Bure? Yakupov to ‘Pasha’ is the same distance as from here to the moon,” stated legendary Boris Mikhailov after the 4-1 defeat against Canada.
Bure debuted at CSKA Moscow when Mikhailov worked as an assistant of Viktor Tikhonov. But Yakupov is different. He is not a super scorer like Bure was.
Larionov thinks that Yakpuov is closer to Vladimir Krutov,