Editor’s note: Oilers Nation’s Andrey Osadchenko recently caught up with Nail Yakupov. After the jump, Yakupov talks about his trouble transferring to Russia, challenges fans to come play in the KHL, talks about playing hockey again, and explains that "big ol’ dive" he took the other day.
Andrey Osadchenko: Let’s get this out of the way right now. OHL’s Sarnia tried to ban you from playing in the KHL. What was that all about?
Nail Yakupov: They found a mysterious contract that I allegedly signed with them for 3 years. I never did that. Moreover, I would never sign such a deal. We inked the papers with the Sting for 2 years. Well, I guess, somebody really wanted to see me play for the Sting this season. I’m glad we got this resolved. [My agent] Igor Larionov and his assistant fought hard for my rights and did everything they could to help me stay where I am. I had no desire to come back to the OHL for another year. I didn’t want to spend more than 2 years over there. I wanted to get to another level. Besides, I was given an opportunity to play for my hometown team until the start of the NHL season.
Osadchenko: Having spent 2 years in the OHL, what do you think of the KHL? Is it a totally different league?
Yakupov: (laughs) Well, what do you think? Of course, it’s very different. I mean, this is the men’s league. They think differently but still got good speed. You can feel that. You can also feel some sort of a man’s strength, you know? You can feel it in every KHL player. This is really interesting to me. I like it. We have a great team. Everybody helped me around in the first couple of games so I wouldn’t feel lost. There was a lot of moral support. Then I scored my first goal and felt more comfortable. I got a hang of it. I started being initiative every now and then. I tried to help my team and we finally managed to win a game on home ice. It felt pretty good.
Osadchenko: Many Canadian fans believe there’s no physical contact in the KHL. Some say there’s more physical play in the OHL. Do you agree with those who think like that?
Yakupov: Hey, when you’re watching the game on TV, you can say whatever you want. I mean, props to them for following KHL games and everything. I don’t want to blame them but still. Sometimes you watch a game on TV and think to yourself ‘Oh, that’s so easy!’. But it’s not. It’s just not easy. KHL is a strong league. It’s not easy to play here. You have to keep in mind that you play against grown men. Men who have played both in the NHL and KHL. These guys fight hard in every game. So, no, I disagree with those Canadian fans who think like that. You want to prove me wrong – come out and play yourself.
Osadchenko: Last season opponents tended to single you out and keep an eye on you personally. Is this something you have to deal with in the KHL?
Yakupov: I wouldn’t say that. But then again here if a guy has an opportunity to hit you, he will. I try to take this opportunity away from them. I try not to give my opponents a chance to lay a hit on me. I dodge the hits and lay them myself. Again, you have to understand – these are grown men we’re talking about. They’re not going to chase you around just for the sake of laying a hit on you like they do in the OHL. No. They play smart. Sure, if there’s a chance to hit you, they’re going to take it. You can’t afford day-dreaming. You have to be on your toes. I try to do just that.
Osadchenko: A lot of people in North America got worried when you were scratched in the first game you were okayed to play in. Vladimir Golubovich, Neftekhimik’s coach, said you weren’t quite there yet in terms of conditioning at the moment. He also mentioned jetlag as an issue. Nevertheless, right after that you started scoring like crazy. How hard was it for you to get into the rhythm of the season?
Yakupov: Jetlag was certainly an issue. I mean, it wasn’t a big deal or anything but still. I got a lot of airmiles under my belt this summer. I crossed the Atlantic like five or six times! It grows down on you. As I said, it wasn’t a huge problem but my training schedule was really messed up because of that. You know how chickens have a seed there and then a seed over there? I was kind of like that. I practiced in Edmonton for a while, and then I spent 3 weeks in Detroit, etc.
First games for Neftekhimik weren’t easy for me. I had to play against grown men and on such a high level too. I felt shaky a little bit. And then just as I started feeling a bit more comfortable, this unfortunate incident occurred. So I had to miss a game. In my absence the coach had to call some guys up, tried to figure out what are the lines were going to look like and all that. There was no certainty about what the verdict was going to look like for me. This is why I was scratched. Coach always knows best. I can only say that I really wanted to play against Dynamo Moscow at Luzhniki Ice Palace. Everything was fine after that, though. I was in the line-up in the game against SKA St. Petersburg.
Photo: s.yume/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0
Osadchenko: You played just 7 games in the KHL and yet already faced off against such superstars as Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Radulov, Zdeno Chara…
Yakupov: You’re right. Every game I played so far featured hockey superstars, who were on top KHL teams too. This is very important, by the way. You could see what the guys were trying to do, what was their strategy for the game and things like that. Sure, I didn’t have an easy time in the first games, but our fans made it somewhat easier for me to play. It was a whole other story in St. Petersburg. They have a very good team. They can really skate, they can hit and they can do a lot of other things. It was interesting to play against them.
I can say the same thing about Salavat Yulaev, who we faced in Ufa, and about Lev, CSKA and Slovan, all of whom we played at home. All of these games were interesting. Their top players performed well and, thus, fired up their teams. So the games were quite dynamic. We were up by a decent margin a lot of times but in the end lost either in overtime or shootout. We finally managed to get a shootout win in the game against Lev. It really was hard to play all of those teams.
Osadchenko: Yeah, about that. In the past few games Neftekhimik developed a tendency to cough up big wins only to lose games in extra time. You have a few injured players on the team. Is that the reason? Do you just run out of gas?
Yakupov: No, we don’t have any problems with conditioning. Nobody’s out of breath by the end of the third or anything. We move well – I’m sure you can tell. Even our coaching staff told us so. It’s just there are many little things that we do wrong in every game. Sometimes we make stupid mistakes in our own zone, or get a dumb penalty and get scored on, or we would get a comfortable lead in the first and just stop playing hard in the second, or we would play too close to our own net, or we would just forget the game plan altogether and get scored on again, etc.
That was the story of the game against Lev too. We were up by a goal, but they tied it late in regulation and we panicked. Thankfully, we finally managed to pull ourselves together, showed our teeth and got the win. I think this win gave us new strength. We’re going on the road in great mood. All our losses are now in the past. We have to get more points. We are on a roll. Everything’s going to be fine, I’m sure of that.
Osadchenko: Judging by your recent twitter activity, it looks like you are now friends with Neftekhimik’s goalie Matt Dalton. You were the first one on the ice to congratulate him with a shootout win in the game against Lev.
Yakupov: Yeah, we’re buds. When I first got here he was the first one who congratulated me on being drafted 1st overall. I’ve never even met him before that – he was playing for Vityaz. And we just started talking to each other. I mean, I speak English a little bit and we don’t really have a lot of import players on our team. He’s interested, I’m interested. I tell him about the teams I played for, he tells me about the teams he played for. That sort of thing.
We really wanted to win the game against Lev. Not only we wanted to get a win on home ice, but we just wanted to get a win already. So I was really excited about that. I was also really excited for Matt. He was injured for a while so he had a rough start of the season and lost a few games. So he was really happy to win, and so was I. I guess, this is why I wanted to be the first on the ice to congratulate him (laughs). It seems childish, I know. But why would you hide your emotions? You won! Besides, we had a day off the next day. What more can you ask for?
Yakupov: There was an unpleasant incident too. As I was jumping over the boards on the ice, I slashed Andrei Subbotin’s arm with a skate. I thought I cut him! I asked him after ‘Hey, Andrei, are you alright?’. He said ‘Meh, I can live with that. It’s fine.’ I apologized.
Osadchenko: Do you speak to your Czech linemates Tomas Netik and Petr Koukal in English or Russian?
Yakupov: We speak a mix of everything. Koukal speaks broken English, he doesn’t know the language well. However, he’s gotten a lot better since last month. He hangs out a lot with Oskar Osala. He’s Finnish and speaks English well so he helps Petr. As for Netik, he speaks Russian. Sure, he speaks broken Russian but I can understand him and he understands everything too. So when they are on the bench, they speak Czech. But when I’m around, I’d talk with Netik in English, he would respond to me in Russian, and more often than not we just speak jibberish (laughs).
Osadchenko: Almost every NHLer who came over to the KHL uses his NHL’s team equipment. For instance, Alex Ovechkin uses his Caps gloves. However, it seems that the only piece of equipment you brought over is the mouthguard.
Yakupov: I’ve used it for 3 years. I got in Nizhnekamsk. I take care of my equipment, even my mouthguard. It’s in perfect condition. So far – knock on the wood – it has protected my teeth well. I used it even in my rookie season in Sarnia.
Osadchenko: It didn’t stand out as much as it does now, though. Neftekhimik jersey really makes it visible.
Yakupov: You’re right. Neftekhimik’s colours are less dark.
Osadchenko: Your smile on the ice now looks just terrifying.
Yakupov: It looks like I have a mouthful of blood, doesn’t it? Just like in a horror movie or something? Yeah, I agree. It does look like that.
Osadchenko: Here’s an unpleseant question. You bumped into Slovan’s goalie Jaroslav Janus a few games ago and he got called for tripping. However, it looks like you just dove.
Yakupov: It is what it is. He held me up a little and I may have jumped a little bit. What’s important is that I got a power play for my team. Now you can say whatever you want – dive or no dive. Tell you what, you can give me a minor penalty right now. I’ll sit over there and relax for 2 minutes. I don’t care. As I said – it is what it is. Hockey has its little tricks. I’m not supporting diving or anything, don’t get me wrong. It just happened like that.
Osadchenko: You have 5 goals already in the KHL. Which one do you like the most?
Yakupov: I think the best goal I scored was my first goal. I scored and we won. My team needed that goal but it was also me who needed that goal the most. It gave me confidence and I scored another one.
Osadchenko: And as they now say, you beat SKA single-handedly.
Yakupov: I wouldn’t put it that way. Sure, I scored 2 goals but I wouldn’t have done it without my teammates. Everybody was thinking team first, you know? We all wanted to win. This is why we were able to win. Having said that, I’ve got to say scoring 2 goals on SKA in St. Petersburg and a game-winning penalty shot is something out of this world.
Osadchenko: Did Ilya Kovalchuk tell you anything after the game? After all, he was also once a first overall pick.
Yakupov: No, he just shook my hand and that’s it. Ovechkin did speak to me, though (smiles). In the game against Dynamo, when I was scratched, I was standing next to the gate the players come off the ice through. Alex gave me a high-five and said ‘What’s up?’. I didn’t expect that. It was pretty funny.
Photo: s.yume/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0
Osadchenko: What did you tell him?
Yakupov: I said: ‘Not much. Just standing here, watching you guys play’.
Osadchenko: Do you follow the negotiations between NHLPA and NHL on the new CBA?
Yakupov: No. I have no idea what’s going on there. I only think of Neftekhimik now. I just get out there and do my job. I try not to overload my head with anything else. When they finally get to the mutual agreement, I will come over. However, for the time being I’m focusing on Neftekhimik.