The city is known for having a large ethnic Russian population and for their mining of minerals such as uranium and zinc. It is also the biggest hockey hotbed in all of Kazakhstan, producing by far more national team players over the years than any other Kazakh city, along with quite a few NHLers over the years.
The mining hub is also the home of Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan's most successful hockey club with a record of thirteen national championships since 1993.
Torpedo was founded in 1955 by Nikolay Konyakhin, a former player who once had experience playing for a youth team in Moscow. He came and introduced the sport to workers at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk and they took to it immediately, training on the nearby Ulba River during the winter months. At that time, the factory workers were playing football and bandy on teams called Torpedo, so because of this the hockey team was also named Torpedo.
Ice Hockey took off immediately in Ust-Kamenogorsk and Torpedo dominated the Kazakh SSR and competed regularly with even the top Russian clubs for over thirty years. Even after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and despite losing many of its players and coaches to Russian teams, Torpedo still flourished and continued being the hockey powerhouse in Kazakhstan.
In 1998, Kazakhstan competed at the Winter Olympics in Nagano and knocked off teams such as Italy and Slovakia to advance to the quarter-finals, where they lost by only a 4-1 margin to Canada. The team consisted entirely of Torpedo players and was coached by Kazakh legend Boris Alexandrov, who is set to be inducted into the Builder category of the IIHF Hall of Fame in May. They were called by journalists during the event as "the team of one locker room."
Kazakhstan also skated at the 1998 World Juniors and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in hockey history when they dismantled Canada by a 6-3 score in the 7th place game. They were led by a young Nikolai Antropov, who would go on to star in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since then, Kazakhstan played at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy and fell one win short of the quarter-finals. They’ve been an elevator team at the men’s World Championships in recent years, going up and down from the top division to Division 1A.
Over the years, 10 players from Ust-Kamenogorsk have gone on to play in the NHL, while 23 have been drafted. Anton Khudobin of the Boston Bruins and Viktor Antipin of the Buffalo Sabres carry the Ust-Kamenogorsk torch in today’s NHL.
However, out of all the players to come out of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the most successful and well-known without a doubt is goaltender Yevgeni Nabokov.
As young Nabby was starting to show signs of potential in goal, it was his dad who took the time to train him and pass on his knowledge of the sport. When asked who had the biggest influence on Yevgeni’s early hockey career, Yevgeni always credits his father. In fact, the reason why Nabby wore the number 20 throughout his career is not because of the legendary Russia netminder Vladislav Tretiak, but because his father Viktor wore that number.
“My town is basically like any small town in Canada because people are that crazy about hockey,” Yevgeni said. “Every little kid wanted to play hockey when I was growing up and I was no exception. My dad was a goalie and I spent a lot of time at the rink with him so that’s how I started.”
For a long time, Ust-Kamenogorsk was considered to be “Hockey Town Kazakhstan” and its hockey school in the town was considered to be one of the best in all of the Soviet Union. The goalie school in town, ran by Viktor Nabokov was no different. A long list of goalies that Viktor developed ended up playing pro hockey in Russia and a couple even made their way to the National Hockey League, his son Yevgeni being one of them.
“It’s not only the goalie position though,” Yevgeni says. “A lot of players came out of Ust-Kamenogorsk and a lot of my friends just didn’t play necessarily for the Russian teams, so that’s why not everyone is familiar with them. But we did have a goalie school that was run by my dad and all of us, Vitali Yeremeyev and Vadim Tarasov, and a few other guys were all around the same age and we had these goalie practices almost every week.”
“Like anything else, if you have people who want to put time into goaltending, you will see the results. I think that’s why you’ve seen those kind of results, because in Ust-Kamenogorsk people cared about goaltending. And it wasn’t just my dad, even though he was the guy who ran the goalie school. In order to have the practices, you need the ice and if nobody cares about the goalies, they’re not going to give you the ice time. In my town, people cared about it and gave us a lot of ice time, and because of that we were able to practice a lot.”
A common theme from goalies out of the Ust-Kamenogorsk goalie factory was a narrow stance and a more up-right hybrid style, most commonly seen by Nabokov, but also used by the likes of Anton Khudobin, Vitali Yeremeyev, Vitali Kolesnik, etc. When asked about it, Yevgeni relays, “It was never really that we were told to do this or that, but you need to be comfortable. You have to feel the edges and back then, it was more of a stand-up style, so you needed to move on your feet very well and if your stance is really wide, it’s hard to move on your feet, so I think that’s where all that comes from. All of the drills we did involved lots of footwork and in order to be comfortable, if you stayed really wide in your stance, it was hard to do certain drills and I think later on it just came out like that because as kids we all worked greatly on our footwork.”
Nabokov played all of his minor and junior hockey for Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk. He started practicing and made his debut for the men’s team at just sixteen. “Just getting to practice with them at that early age definitely helped,” Yevgeni recalled. “Obviously, the shots you faced were harder and more accurate than playing with the juniors so it kind of gave us an idea of what professional hockey was all about.”
It was around this time that Nabby started getting his first taste of international play.
“Vitali Yeremeyev and I both played for the Soviet Union national junior team up until 1992 when the Soviet Union separated into many different countries. After that, we kind of had no place to play internationally so we missed a year or two and then finally me and Vitali had the opportunity to play for Kazakhstan at the 1994 World Championships Group C.”
Nabokov was in goal for the Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk men’s team one night and played superb when the Kazakh squad pulled off an upset over Russian powerhouse Dynamo Moscow. They offered him an invitation to join the team, and because this was around the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it made it a little easier of a decision to leave home.
“We had such a great hockey town and again it happened in the years of the separation of the Soviet Union, things started happening. They kicked us out of the Soviet League, so we couldn’t play in Russia anymore and could only play in Kazakhstan, so a lot of players started leaving our town. I got an invitation to Dynamo Moscow and obviously with that type of club, that kind of history, it wasn’t that hard of a decision. My parents gave me the green light and in 1994 I left when I was nineteen years old, because it was time to move on and try to get better.”
“Surprisingly I got drafted to the San Jose Sharks that same year I went to Dynamo. I got drafted late because I hadn’t been outside of Kazakhstan playing in years, the only time I got to play at the international stage in those years was at the 1994 World Championships, but that was in Group C, so not a lot of scouts were likely there. Because we were a new country, we had to go by the IIHF rules and go from Group C to Group B, Group B to Group, that kind of thing and it took a while to get back to the top group. I remember Slovakia was in the same boat as they had just split up from Czechoslovakia because I remember playing there against Ziggy Palffy and Miroslav Satan.”
Playing in Russia for Dynamo Moscow, Nabokov quickly became one of the top netminders playing in Europe. He won two Russian Championships in 1995 and 1996 and led his team to the 1997 European Club Championships. It was then in 1997, three years after being drafted by the San Jose Sharks that someone from the team reached out to him.
“It happened really quick. We won two Russian championships with Dynamo Moscow and had played in the Euro League finals and that’s when Wayne Thomas and John Ferguson Sr. flew in and that’s when they gave me a formal invitation to come over to the United States.”
“Back then in 1996 it wasn’t an easy choice. I loved it in Moscow, loved playing for Dynamo. Everything was so good, and they had started promising that I would have a chance to start playing for Team Russia. Today, it’s a different time. A lot of people speak English in Russia and they’re familiar with the NHL. When I was playing in Russia, no one knew much about the NHL. It wasn’t an easy choice, but after winning two championships, it was kind of time for the next challenge. I sat down with my parents, and me and my dad talked it out and we thought that I gotta give it a try because you don’t want you to look back later on in my career and wonder why we didn’t do this or that, so I decided to give it a try in North America.”
Nabokov came over to North America in the fall of 1997 and spent a couple of seasons with the San Jose Sharks minor league affiliates in Kentucky and Cleveland, learning the North American style of play and getting accustomed to life outside of Russia. He made his first NHL start on January 19th, 2000 when he went up against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. After making 39 saves in a 0-0 shutout, the Sharks knew right there that they had their future number one goaltender. The next season when he became the Sharks full-time goalie and promptly won the Calder Trophy for the NHL rookie of the year, it only further cemented his status as the Sharks man between the pipes, even when they had a young Miikka Kiprusoff in their system as well.
Although everything was going great for Nabokov early in his NHL career, he was having a problem in with the international side of things. He wanted to start representing Russia internationally, but the IIHF wouldn’t allow it because he had previously played for Kazakhstan. Yevgeni was supposed to go and play for Russia at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but his passport and other documents just weren’t ready in time. He could have suited up at the 2004 World Cup for Russia if not for a knee surgery. Nabokov credits Slava Fetisov and Igor Kuperman for getting the ball rolling and helping him finally start representing Russia at the 2006 Torino Olympics.
During that 2006 Winter Olympics, Yevgeni suited up for Team Russia in a round robin game against his home country of Kazakhstan. Facing him on the other end of the ice was his childhood friend Vitali Yeremeyev, who had a cup of coffee in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers in 2001. As kids, the two used to train on the ice together at 7 a.m. and they were always very competitive in everything they did. That night, Yeremeyev shined for Kazakhstan and stopped 50 shots. He let just one shot go behind him and that was the difference as Nabby posted the shutout in a 1-0 win for Russia.
Nabokov ended up shutting out Team Canada as well 2-0 in the quarterfinals but fell in the semi-finals and Bronze Medal Game to finish 4th.
Regarding the game against his home country, Nabby said, “That was a really weird experience because the Kazakhstan team had so many players that I grew up with and played against as a kid. It was mixed emotions and a little bit weird to play against your boys like that.”
The big highlight of Nabby’s career came in 2008 when he joined Team Russia at the World Championships after the Sharks were eliminated from the playoffs. He played in five games, won them all, and played a big role in Russia winning their first gold medal at the Worlds since 1993. He was named the tournament’s best goaltender and was placed on the tournament all-star team.
“That was interesting because it happened after the second round series with Dallas when we lost in Game 6 in that long four overtime game and I wasn’t sure if I had the juice to go and play, but Vladislav Tretiak called and said basically that the team had a lot of injuries. I said well if you have an injury problem then absolutely I will come and try to help, but I had injuries myself! My ankle was hurt so I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but I told him that up front and he said, ‘I don’t care. If you’re on one leg you still gotta come out’.”
“So off I went! Winning the gold medal was something I’ll never forget. The final against Canada and Kovalchuk’s goal to tie the game late in the third and then to win in overtime was amazing. But to be honest, right after the game, while the celebration was going on and everyone was so pumped, I had to go back to my hotel room for an hour or two to kind of settle down because I was so exhausted. After the guys were all done with the media stuff, I came out with the boys and we celebrated at some place in Quebec City. It was awesome!”
By the time he moved on from San Jose, Yevgeni became the leader in every goaltending category, including games played, wins, and shutouts. He is the best goalie by a mile in franchise history and its almost a given that he will get his number retired by the team at some point in the near future.
After spending a few seasons with the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nabokov retired from the NHL at the age of 39 after fourteen seasons in the league. He finished with 353 wins and 59 shutouts which are both in the top-20 all-time for each category.
When asked about what the other big moments that he puts up there with his World Championship, “To me it’s pretty much every playoff game and every series we won, it was a big accomplishment. Going to the conference finals twice, I still think it’s an accomplishment, but it sucks we weren’t able to win a Stanley Cup with a team that was so ready to win one and we were probably a favourite some years. Somehow, we just didn’t do it and it’s kind of sad.”
Yevgeni Nabokov is 42 now and living back in San Jose. He is the goaltending development coach for the San Jose Sharks and primarily works with the netminders of their AHL affiliate San Jose Barracudas. Despite living in California year-round, Nabokov has never forgotten his roots. He still goes back to Moscow in the summer, and back home to Ust-Kamenogorsk to visit his parents and grandparents who still live in the town.
The adjustment from goalie to goalie coach is never easy, but Nabby is enjoying every minute of his new job.
“I love it. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be. I took it kind of slowly at first, but I love being in hockey, talking hockey, sharing certain things with the goalies and also learning from them. That’s another big thing – you learn, because when you play in goal you usually are stuck with what you have, and you play your style, but now as a coach, you’re way more open to look at stuff and watch more video of the other goaltending styles and that’s been a good lesson for me.”