January 10 2013 08:34AM
Ever since Nail Yakupov was projected to go first overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he was a media darling. He with candid and well-spoken with Russian media and tried his best to do the same for North American media with the little command of English language he had.
And he succeeded. Think of his famous post-game interview after the semifinal game in Calgary at the 2012 World Juniors. Nail gives broken English a new meaning, and yet you are drawn to the nonsense he’s saying. Because it’s not the words you’re listening to – it’s the emotion.
His reputation was shaken by his alleged comment about Team Canada and how ‘dirty’ they play. At the World Juniors in Ufa Yakupov came out to the media once and didn’t say much even then.
He made it clear to everyone before the tournament that he doesn’t feel like talking to the media. However, the message was not understood and the reporters kept pushing but to no avail. The media got angry with Yakupov and now it seems that the fans are on the reporters’ side.
I don’t really feel like talking about why all of this is happening and why Yakupov decided to do what he did. Instead, I would like to share a story with you. A story from the World Juniors. A story that not a single reporter broke because they were blindly following the ‘dirty Canadians’ lead.
Junior hockey isn’t big in Russia - heck, is it anywhere outside of Canada? – so there is only a fistful of journalists who cover it. Elena ‘Rusko’ Kolpakova (@ElenaRusko) is one of them. She is a writer on occasion but her main line of work is photography. I may be wrong but I think she’s covered every World Junior Championship since 2008. She works for the largest news and photo agencies in Russia and is even tapping into North American market now.
Russian junior – and former junior – players are well-aware of her. It’s hard not to be when she’s your main source of your pictures from the game, though. Kolpakova has a hobby – she’s into collecting pucks. Game used pucks primarily. Every tournament she asks a few players on Team Russia to bring her a puck from the game if they have a chance.
In Ufa she asked Yakupov for the favor. Yeah, the same evil and mute Yakupov the general crowd thought they saw in Russia.
Kolpakova reminded Yakupov about the puck right before the Canada-Russia game in the round robin. Canada dominated on the ice; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Yakupov’s rival in this context – picked up three points as his team won 4-1. Russia lost their chance to win a bye to a semifinal. All of this happened on New Year’s Eve – by far a bigger holiday in Russia than Christmas is in Canada. The Russian team was heavily criticized by the media when they were winning. You can imagine what the press did to Yakupov and company after that loss. You’d think Nail would be the first one to storm off the ice after the devastating loss.
However, Yakupov stays on the ice when everyone is headed to the dressing rooms. He’s looking for Kolpakova in the stands. As soon as the eye contact is established, he raises his hand. He got her a puck. She pressed the button.
A few hours later he made this picture his profile on VK.com – a Russian social network.
Whoever had a chance to privately talk to Yakupov – even those of us who cover hockey for a living – will tell you the same thing. He’s still the guy we knew and loved. He’s an honest and reliable friend.
Who cares if for the time being he doesn’t feel like talking to the media who insists on asking the same questions day in and day out? Who cares if he thinks Team Canada plays dirty? He’s from a country that still remembers what Bobby Clarke did to Valeri Kharlamov after all.
The smallest deeds speak volumes. In Yakupov’s case it very well may be the story about the puck.