His 30-day sentence for charges related to drunk driving behind him, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin returned to the ice with his Edmonton Oilers teammates today.
Released from Maricopa County Jail in Arizona on Aug. 15 to finish his sentence under house arrest after abandoning an appeal of convictions on three charges dating back to February 2010, the 38-year-old puck stopper was back in the crease at Kinsmen Arenas.
With his time served and a forgettable 2010-11 season behind him, Khabibulin will report to Rexall Place for medicals and fitness testing with his teammates Friday in preparation for training camp.
Whether Khabibulin, who struggled mightily with the 30th-place Oilers amid a highly-publicized trial during a season in which he endured a 14-game losing streak, can regain his form has yet to be seen, but he looked and sounded like a man who’d had a weight lifted off his shoulders when we spoke today.
Khabibulin, entering the third-year of a four-year contract worth $15 million, spoke with Jim Matheson of The Journal, Dave Mitchell of CTV and I after his first workout back in Edmonton.
"I’m definitely happy about that, that it’s over with," he said. "I’m trying to put it behind. It wasn’t really easy to go through. It wasn’t easy for me or my family, and probably even harder for my family. Luckily, it’s done now and I can look ahead."
Khabibulin, who was pulled over for speeding in his black Ferrari on the way to his Arizona home, began serving his sentence in Tent City, the infamous portion of the Maricopa County Jail established by Sheriff Joe Arpaio On July 30.
That’s not a place anybody wants to be at the best of times, let alone in July when the searing heat in the Valley of the Sun is almost unbearable.
"I think in the first 48 hours I was there I lost like six or seven pounds just laying in the bed," said Khabibulin, who is a such a notorious sweater he has holes drilled in his skates to allow the perspiration to drain away.
NO FIVE-STAR HOTEL
"The water we could get," said Khabibulin, who was assigned to one of the 14 or 15 bunks in his tent. "They had some wetting machines, but the food was, uh, I tried it once and I didn’t want to try . . . "
Suffice to say, Sheriff Arpaio’s menu was not the type Khabibulin has grown accustomed to during his NHL career. Nor should it be, not when the taxpayers are footing the bill.
"The weekends are the worst because there’s nothing to do. All you can do is read a book or talk to other people," said Khabibulin, who read the DaVinci Code in Tent City. "I brought some Russian books. I talked to some guys there. Some good people there, too."
As an established NHL goaltender, and having spent three years as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, Khabibulin wasn’t exactly able to just blend in, especially with the publicity that came with his trial.
"I actually did," said Khabibulin, when we half-jokingly asked if he’d been asked to sign any autographs while in jail. "Pieces of paper. I got called up to the office a couple times. They wanted autographs, too, so, . . . the detention officers."
Talk to Khabibulin and his regrets are obvious. While remorse doesn’t change the fact he broke the law, I came away from the interview with the sense that, aside from the price he paid in terms of public ridicule beyond his time served, there’s nothing about the experience he didn’t fully understand.
"There’s a lot of people I’ve seen and talked to (in prison)," Khabibulin said. "Some are contractors, CEOs of companies, some are just regular people. We all talk about things that we’ve done.
"They’re all saying, ‘Well, if we could get it back, we would never do it.’ So, obviously, we learned a lesson. It’s not very easy stuff to deal with when you’re there, and especially when you’re in the media. It’s not easy."
Headlines aside, the impact of Khabibulin’s actions struck a lot closer to home than the public spectacle.
"My daughter is old enough now that she reads the internet and everything, you know? She was not very happy. She felt back for me, but I hope that what I’ve done, my mistake, I hope that she is going to learn from it as well.
"She wouldn’t give me a hard time. Like sometimes, she would say something funny to me, but, at the same time, I know for a fact that when I went there, she was crying for the first couple days, so that was hard to see that. I’m pretty sure she’s going to, because of what I’ve done, learn to . . . "
"It’s definitely nice to put it behind you," Khabibulin said. "I think that last year, as much as I tried not to think about it . . . if the season was better, I think it would have been easier to do it, but once we weren’t winning as many games, it’s always in the back of your mind.
"You constantly kind of think about it. I think in a way it’s more relaxed now for me. Again, it wasn’t fun. I learned my lesson. Going forward now, I think it will be a little more relaxed."
What fans want to know is if Khabibulin has enough game to give the Oilers the kind of goaltending they need to show marked improvement in the standings. Coming off a season in which Khabibulin was 10-32-4 with a 3.40 goals-against average and an .890 saves percentage, that’s going to be a tough sell.
"The only way for me is to go on the ice and prove that I can still play," Khabibulin said.
"There’s no other way. I can say what I want, or people can think what they want, but it will all come down to when the games start. If I do well, I’ll be happy. If not, then I guess not."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.