Nail Yakupov on being a Muslim, Don Cherry, the draft combine and playing in Canada

OilersNation’s Andrey Osadchenko recently had an opportunity to talk to top 2012 Draft prospect Nail Yakupov again, and the two covered a lot of ground.  Yakupov went into detail about what his Muslim faith means for his hockey career, what it was like to meet Don Cherry, how he handled the draft combine, and why he hopes to be drafted by and play for a Canadian team.

AO: You recently said that you’re not a Russian but a Muslim. What did you mean by that?

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NY: This is what happened. I was asked about the ‘Russian Factor’. I said it had nothing to do with me because everyone has his own path. Generalization is wrong. Don’t tell me that I’m going to get drunk all the time or smoke or anything. Because it’s not going to happen. And then I said that if you really look into this I’m not a Russian but a Tatar. [AO: In Russian language there are two words for ‘Russian’. One meaning ethnicity, the other – nationality. However, in English ‘Russian’ means both, which understandably created confusion] I didn’t mean to say anything what now people think I did. I love Russia, I played for Team Russia and hopefully I will play for Team Russia again. But I said this word and people zeroed in on it.

[Canadians] just don’t know who Tatars are. I’m telling them: ‘I’m Tatar’. And they go: ‘What’s a Tatar?’ I had to explain it. That’s when I mentioned the Muslim thing. Now everybody in Russia thinks I’m public enemy #1. I didn’t mean to offend anybody. It’s not my fault I was born a Tatar and a Muslim, right? What do I do now – hang myself? Tatarstan is part of Russia. I played for Team Russia and I have a Russian passport. When they asked me about the ‘Russian Factor’ I tried to make a joke out of it. However, I was clear about what I meant, wasn’t I? I meant – generalization is wrong. Everybody has his own path.

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AO: How religious are you? What if the Ramadan happens to be during the season, are you going to fast? This may seriously affect your game.

NY: No, I don’t do stuff like that. I just believe in God and go to mosque if I have a chance. I just live. Don’t worry, I’m not going to disappear during the season because of my religious beliefs.

AO: Andrey Vasilevskyi had 28 interviews during the Combine Tests in Toronto. How many did you have?

NY: 18.

AO: Somebody actually thinks you’re going to be available 18th overall?

NY: It’s clear that I can’t be drafted by 18 teams. However, a lot of teams just want to get to know you better. They want to know what kind of a person you are. They even discuss it among themselves. You know, we didn’t get much out of him but maybe he really opened up to Minnesota or Chicago? That kind of thing. Some teams were quite honest about it too. They were like: ‘Hey, we know you won’t be available for us. So how about we just talk? What’s up? How’s it going?’

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AO: Evgeny Kuznetsov was asked a few years ago if he was into drinking, girls and smoking. Did you get questions like this?

NY: No, nobody tried to get under my skin. Everybody asked me pretty much the same questions. Most of them were about hockey and how do I practice in summer. It was interesting. Sometimes I felt comfortable and sometimes not because people would look at me really seriously and asked questions accordingly. There were some interviews where I just had to say: ‘Look, you guys really made me sweat here. Do you people ever smile?’ I tried to loosen them up a little bit. Because they looked at me as if they were about to tear me apart.

AO: You also met with Don Cherry who is well-known for how much he ‘loves’ Russians.

NY: So I was told, yes. I stood next to him on TV. He’s a good guy. We talked and joked around. I didn’t feel that he dislikes me in any way. I’ve also heard he loves top prospects. He wasn’t like: ‘Oh, you Russians are all scum!’ Seriously, Don Cherry is a cool guy. I liked him.

AO: I wouldn’t be far off if I suggested that you hadn’t flown like this like you did last week, right?

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NY: You got that right. After I came to the Combine Tests in Toronto, I had 8 flights. I had to go to New York and back, then to Edmonton and back, and then catch a flight back home. It’s okay. It’s not like I could say ‘no’ to this.

AO: And you always had to look good.

NY: I always look good. It’s not a problem for me. I just need a few hours to rest and I’m good to go. Besides, they didn’t drag me to interviews right from the plane.

AO: Everybody is scared of the bicycle at the Combine Tests. You were probably the only one who was getting on it with a smile.

NY: (laughs) I smiled before every test. Even before the bicycle. I felt pretty good. I was eager to try all of this. I was always talking and joking around with the guys, it was fun. Of course, it’s difficult. But what can you do? I like to smile. Maybe it’s just something I do. People say I’ve got a wonderful smile. So I smile.

AO: But this bicycle is a nightmare!

NY: Sure is. It’s a part of hockey. And I love hockey. I know that hockey games are just part of it. There’s also gym, tests and many other things. Interviews with reporters as well. My dad and my family taught me this – no matter how difficult it is, you have to do it with a smile. If you’re in a good mood, it’s easier to get stuff done. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and everything’s going to be ok. Besides, when you’re on that bicycle people cheer for you. And you understand yourself that if you’re going to make it to the NHL, it’s only going to get tougher. This is why in one of my interviews I said that this bicycle was easy for me.

AO: From Toronto you went to New Jersey to watch Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. How did you like it?

NY: It was great. They got a new rink, it’s very big. Before the game we went to meet the players in the locker-room. We spoke to 4 guys who speak Russian on the Devils, and to Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty from the Kings.

AO: You didn’t talk to Voynov or Loktionov?

NY: Voynov just said ’Hi’ and walked away and Loktionov was on the ice with his coach at this time. It was interesting to take in the atmosphere of the Stanley Cup Finals. I had goosebumps all over me! Sure, maybe it was a slow-pace game but you have got to love the way they battle on pure character! Everyone battles for the puck. Everyone understands that there’s no luxury to make a mistake, so they play very calmly and don’t try to do anything unusual. I agree, it wasn’t exciting hockey but interesting nevertheless. Besides it went to overtime. Our trip was well-organized too. They met us, took us to lunch, then to the locker-room, then we got on TV, we were interviewed and taking pictures with fans. It was fun. I want to play in the NHL as soon as possible.

AO: All of the guys who were recently drafted 1st overall became NHLers right away. Do you feel ready for this?

NY: I don’t like comparing myself to other people. Especially with those who already made it to the NHL. Because they are already there and I just finished my season in a junior league. Hopefully, I get drafted first overall and then we’ll see. I will work hard and do everything I can to make it to the NHL. It’s easy to say from the stands that you’d this and that differently. But these are men who play there. And we got to see what these men are like. However, I’m not afraid of anything. I think I can play there. You just have to work hard and I’m ready for this.

AO: In one of your interviews you said that you don’t have any preferences at the draft except for one – you want to be drafted by a Canadian team. Why?

NY: My goal is to play in the NHL. It’s my #1 priority. It doesn’t matter what team am I on. I just spent 2 years in Canada and I really like this country. I’ve fallen in love with it. I never lived in USA so I can’t say anything about this country. I feel comfortable in Canada. I don’t know who’s going to draft me. I will play for any team.

AO: Maybe you should have put on Canadian shirt just like Mikhail Grigorenko did?

NY: (smiles) I don’t have a shirt like this. Don’t worry I got other shirts and they are all great.

AO: Your agent, Igor Larionov, recently said that you’re starting to talk to the media in the ‘right’ way. What did he mean by that?

NY: My family always helps me with advice. My agent also tells me what I should say in different situations. Eventually I learned it. About 3-4 years ago I thought it was easy – you just say whatever is on your mind. Now I realize that it’s very serious. You have to be prepared for an interview. You have to know what to say and when. I can’t really explain it. I just know what I’m supposed to answer in certain situations. My mom, dad, uncle, agents and friends helped me with this. Did I answer your question in the ‘right’ way? (laughs)

Recently by Andrey Osadchenko

  • bazmagoo

    Hall down the left on one line, Yak on the right on another line. Starting to get excited, if this kid pans out the Oilers are going to be be good pretty soon.

    But if I see Potter and/or Sutton on defence in game 1 of the season I might just cry. Both are solid injury fill ins but not NHL caliber regulars in my opinion.

  • Acumen

    Marvelous interview. Great questions and this guy is going to be a media darling.

    When’s the last time we had someone who was such an engaging and personable, but still entirely real, interview like this? Matt Greene was always good, Doug Weight was nice as well, but was Captain Cliche for sure.

    Maybe it extends before my time… I know Moose was kinda like this, but he was a Ranger by the time I started watching hockey on my papa’s lap.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I wish i could share your fellas enthusiasms with Yakupov. Wouldn’t it be just like the Oilers to step up to the podium a week from friday and select Ryan Murray first overall. Punch us all in the gut while doing it with a smile.

    Not sure why i feel this way. The last two drafts the Oilers had their homework done for them and took the concensus No.1 player available. This year could be the year they feel they’re smarter than the experts and do their own thing.

    Have the feeling, come draft day, it’s going to be Ryan Murray, along with a healthy dose of regret in the following yrs. It’s unfortunate the Oilers don’t have anyone on staff who has the ability to move Heaven and Earth once every 35 yrs and land both of these kids.

  • BigE91

    My nightmare as an Oiler fan? They take Murray and I have to watch Yak turn into a superstar on another team, coming to Edmonton every year and lighting up the building wearing another uniform. This guy is the whole package. Great attitude, mature, funny, loves Canada, confident without being arrogant, and oh so skilled. Ryan Murray is a great kid. I am sure he will be a solid D man for whatever team takes him, but Yakupov will haunt us for many, many years if we don’t snap him up. This really is a no-brainer.
    No Horc will not and should not give up his Number 10 to Yak. It will be available in a couple of years if the kid wants it and has earned it.
    Great work Andrey. This is far and away the best interview I have been with Yakupov. 10 days to go. Don’t screw this one up guys.

  • GVBlackhawk

    Tatar sauce!!

    It’s gonna be sad when we trade the first pic to Columbus and we take Ryan Murray second. It will be neat to have Messier as our Coach though…

  • justDOit

    Another wonderful slice of honesty and sincerity from the young Mr. Yakupov. Great interview Andrey, and I’m glad to see my question from a while ago answered. Who knew that one could learn so much about religion from hockey?

    To all those expecting the Oilers to pick Murray, I think I see what you’re doing there: expect the worse and be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen. Because it won’t, unless an offer just this side of stupid comes across for that 1st pick.

    And I really doubt that Nail would accept Horc’s number, even if it were offered. From the way he speaks in his interviews, I would expect Nail to look up to and respect his captain and try to learn every thing he can about what it takes to be a professional hockey player, and not worry about what it says on the back of his jersey.

  • striker777

    As a member of Russian community in Edmonton, we’d be proud to have Nail put on an Oiler jersey.

    Not #10 though, the kid needs to earn his spot on the team and must always have respect for veterans.

  • Reg Dunlop

    I was on vacation when this interview was posted. I just want to say thank-you. So far, it has been the single best source of actual Nail Yakupov characterization. His confidence comes off in a much more human, less dickish way. I very much hope EDM takes him at #1.