November 13, 2012
Oilers pick Yakupov Nails it in Sarnia
By TERRY JONES, QMI Agency
SARNIA, ONT. - Love me? Love me not? Love me? Love me not? Love me? Love me not?
If Nail Yakupov had any doubt how it would play out, he ought not.
Yakupov made what you'd call a triumphant return, if there had actually been a triumph involved, to his junior hockey home here Monday night in the Russian's Subway Super Series stop despite choosing not to return to the junior Sarnia Sting during the NHL lockout.
Yakupov was cheered wildly when he was introduced.
"That was great to have before you were going to play your last game in Sarnia. That meant a lot," he said.
Yakupov was cheered the same way again when he scored with 36.1 seconds left to give the fans a going-away present.
"I was happy when I scored. I'd have been happier if I'd scored again when I had a chance with 20 second left. But I was glad I scored in my final game," he said.
The game ended up 2-1 for the OHL All-Stars, which was OK with the crowd, too.
But Yakupov left them with one last moment when he made a trip around the ice applauding the fans.
"That was just for them, for everything they meant to me," he said.
Oddly Yakupov refused to give a young girl a stick she wanted as he left the ice, but tossed her his helmet instead.
"I still have two more games to play and only three more sticks," he said.
The helmet instead?
"It was broken," he said of the result of taking a huge open ice hit from Plymouth Whalers Team Canada world junior prospect Tom Wilson.
Yakupov was a bit nervous about how it would turn out with his opting instead for hometown Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the KHL this season.
"Today, there was a little bit of pressure. It was sold out. They were my fans."
Well, they still love the flamboyant Russian the Edmonton Oilers chose No. 1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft.
There was bigger than usual focus for this year's Subway Super Series due to the lockout and it was elevated when Yakupov was named to the Russian team. And this game was circled on the six-game tour which finishes up against WHL opposition, including seven players and a head coach from the Edmonton Oil Kings, in Vancouver Wednesday and Victoria Thursday.
"Monday will be crazy I think," said Yakupov back when we left him in Guelph Thursday.
Turned out the whole three days here were crazy as his former Sting teammates showed up at the Russian practice with plenty of fans on hand delighted to see Yakupov wearing a Sting Fan Club "Pollination" t-shirt and signing autographs.
Yakupov, the sixth consecutive CHL player to be selected No. 1 overall following sooner or later to become Edmonton Oiler teammates Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, went to the Sarnia Stings game here Sunday afternoon and out to dinner with the Galanyuks after the game.
But Monday was the night.
"I would have been surprised if they didn't welcome him back like that after what he did here for two years. It was amazing," said Alex Galchenyuk, the American-born Russian teammate of Yakupov with the Sting.
After missing 66 games here last Galchenyuk returned to the team as long as the lockout lasts before starting his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens who picked him No. 3 in the same draft.
"It's not the same. Obviously his main dream was to play in the NHL. But since he was a kid he lived in Russia and they have a team in his home town he could play for. When there is no NHL, I knew he was not coming back here."
Galchenyuk says when Yakupov gets to Edmonton you're going to love him. But it's not easy to get to know him.
"You have to figure out what kind of person he is. He loves the camera. But he's a different guy and a great friend when the camera isn't on him," added the young Galchenyuk, who was born in Milwaukee, played his minor hockey in several states and then in Moscow for three years as he followed his father the veteran player before playing a year in Chicago and coming here two years ago to play junior.
Alex Galchenyuk Sr., who has spent 23 years in hockey, is an assistant coach with the Sting. He says it's been a whirlwind experience since the day Yakupov showed up here 26 months ago from Russia.
"He came with no English and stayed with us and fit right in. He's such a good guy. He picked up English so fast."
Yakupov said he couldn't have had a better situation.
"Because of the Galchenyuks, the English came pretty easy. Everything was different It was certainly two key years. Everything was good for me here," he said of the city of 72,366.
"It's a good town," said Galchenyuk Sr.
"It's nice people, nice rink and no traffic, not like Moscow. It's quiet."
Galchenyuk Sr. said the people understood the decision Yakupov made to play in the KHL this year where Yakupov has scored 10 goals and played point-per-game-plus hockey with 14 points in 13 games.
"They knew it was Nail's decision, that he was going back to his home town in Russia to play for his home team in the KHL. It was actually his dream to be able to do that before moving on to his bigger dream to play in the NHL. My son Alex decided to stay here and play for the Sting. I think both were the right decisions for the players involved. When I spoke with Nail at dinner he told me how much he is enjoying it in the KHL."
The Oilers endorsed Yakupov playing in Russia, saying they wanted him to play in the highest league possible.
Sarnia defenceman Alex Basso, the only member of the Sting in the OHL lineup last night, said he was happy to see the way the fans reacted.
"They feel good about him. They loved him when he was here. He's a special guy. And he was exciting.
"He's a good player and a great guy. He made the guys, like me, that he played with a lot better."
Terry Doyle, the Sting TV play-by-play man, said he thinks Sarnia looked forward to this chance to thank Yakupov for his junior career here, something they didn't get to do with Stephen Stamkos, who preceded him as a Sting player selected No. 1 overall in the draft.
"Yakupov is very personal. He's happy go lucky. Always has a big smile. I don't think there were any hard feelings about the decision he made. I think everybody here was aware it was going to be the Oilers in the NHL or his hometown in the KHL depending on how the lockout went.
"Nail was here to drop the puck before a pre-season game."
Dlyle said it's been an interesting study here with Canadian Stephen Stamkos a first pick overall followed by Russian Yakupov.
"Stamkos was a rock star here. When they had a public skating session here, he'd just sit on the bench signing autographs. Nail would be out skating with them. He was never the rock star."
Sarnia GM and coach Jacques Beaulieu, who was an assistant coach for the OHL All-Stars here last night, said he wasn't surprised by the reaction of the fans here. And he says you're going to love him in Edmonton, too.
"He's full of character," he said of the CHL's Rookie of the Year in 2011 who recorded 170 points in 107 games over two seasons including 49 goals and 101 points in his rookie season to break the record previously owned by Stamkos.
He's going to be great. He's dynamic. He's going to be a great player for the Oilers."