Nail Yakupov: “I want to prove to the Oilers they made the right choice.”

Nail Yakupov is only a few weeks into his career with the Edmonton Oilers, but already he has impressed with his performance at the team’s summer development camp. OilersNation’s Andrey Osadchenko caught up with Yakupov there.

Yakupov: We’d get up at 6am, go to the rink and come back around 8pm. It’s not like it was all practice and nothing else. We had a lot meetings and other stuff that’s not directly involved in sports. Every day was so long. We’d get back to hotel, go to sleep only to wake up the next day again at 6am.

Osadchenko: Oilers had options with how they were going to spend their first overall pick, but they finally drafted you. Were you nervous about it or you sort of expected to be picked by the Oilers?

Yakupov: Honestly, I didn’t expect anything before the draft day. But when I woke up on that day, I got really nervous right away. I was shaking all over! Hours went by and I was still shaking. Nobody knew what they were going to do and neither did I. Everybody just kind of waited. When they called my name I felt relieved. It was cool.

Osadchenko: You talked to the Oilers at Combine Tests in Toronto and right before the draft. Did they give you the impression they were interested in you more than in anyone else?

Yakupov: No, there were no hints that they were going to draft me. They talked to me just like they talked to everyone else. They showed me around the rink, introduced me to the personnel and stuff like that. But nothing concrete was ever said. Toronto and Montreal would have done the same thing, but I chose to go to Edmonton. They called me first and I went for it. I mean, the team wanted to see me here, so why would I say no, right? But they never said they’d draft me.

Osadchenko: Former Oilers 1st overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, was up there on the stage with you. Did you get to talk to him?

Yakupov: Yeah, I did. My family and I were invited to a dinner that evening. There we talked a little bit. Great guy. Everything was awesome. We didn’t fight or anything like that (laughs).

Osadchenko: There’s a picture of you talking to somebody on the phone during a photoset right after you were picked. Who were you talking to?

Yakupov: Sam Gagner.

Osadchenko: How did he get your number?

Yakupov: He didn’t. Somebody just gave me the phone and told me Sam wanted to talk to me.

Osadchenko: What did he say?

Yakupov: He congratulated me and wished good luck. That was all.

Osadchenko: Do you think you can get more than 8 points in one game?

Yakupov: (laughs) I’d like to. It’d be great. That’s not what I’m focusing on, though, right now. So far I just want to make the team. I want to prove with work and the way I play that I deserve to be on the team. I want to get as much ice-time as I can. I want my team to win. I want to get a lot of points. I want to feel comfortable on the team. I don’t want to be in the limbo. I want to be a part of the team. I don’t want to be an up-and-down guy. And I want to be the best (laughs).

No-no-no, don’t get me wrong. It’s like I’m going to show up at the camp all cocky and going to act like I’m a star. No, nothing like this is going to happen. You see, getting picked first overall was just step one. Step two is to actually make the team. I want to work hard and be on the team. I want to prove to the Oilers they made the right choice. I want to prove to my family they put all this effort into to me for a good reason. I want to prove to all of my former coaches back in Sarnia and Nizhnekamsk that they taught me well.

I’m very grateful to everyone he helped me in Nizhnekamsk – from security people and janitors to Chemical Factory director Vladimir Busygin. I’m deeply thankful to all those who congratulated me after draft, including mayors of Kazan and Nizhnekamsk – they called my dad right after I was picked. I’m being serious – I don’t want to look bad in their eyes. I want to be a part of the team and play for the Oilers. Hopefully, it’s going to happen. Knock on wood.

Osadchenko: Last summer you went to Neftekhimik’s pro team training camp and looked good. As the matter of fact, you even scored some goals in scrimmage games. Did you feel back then that you were playing with pros? Was there a huge gap for you between this and junior hockey?

Yakupov: I wouldn’t say it was ‘huge’. It’s still just another hockey game. If you come into it well-prepared, nobody can stop you. As soon as you get legs going for you, you’re going to be fine. Sure, when you play with grown men it’s a little bit different – they skate faster and hit harder. They also think faster and do everything faster. I spent a month with them, got to know them better, felt the rhythm they worked in, so it felt comfortable in scrimmage games. Also, I’d like to point out that I’m very thankful to Neftekhimik for letting me practice with them last summer. It was a great experience for me.

Osadchenko: Do you think transition from the Sting to the Oilers would go just as smooth for you?

Yakupov: Even though it’s still early, I think about it. Everything happens to you for the first time some time, you know? It’s just the way it goes. You wait for it to happen and you get somewhat nervous. Not because you don’t think you can do it, but simply because it’s your first time and you’ve never tried it before. I’m interested in how it’s going to pan out. I don’t want to be scared of it. I want to show what I’m capable of, I want to prove I’m ready for the NHL – the best league in the world. I want to be on that level. To summarize my point – yes, I think about it, I feel kind of anxious about it, but only because I don’t want to let people down.

Osadchenko: There’s a lot of talk about the ‘Russian Factor’. Are you fed up with questions about you possibly leaving to the KHL?

Yakupov: I’ve been asked so much about it. So many questions about it. I mean, I understand them. It’s their job. Every agent, scout and GM would ask me about it because his job is on the line. Did you see what happened after the draft? Quite a few teams fired their scouts. It’s their job. They have to know. They have to trust you. Then again when you’re asked the same question over 30 times it kind of gets under your skin. But you can’t do anything about. I’m being honest about it. Whether or not you trust me – I have no control over it. It’s not like I’d get on my knees and beg you to trust me, right?

I told the truth. It’s always been my dream to play in the NHL. This is why I came to Canada. I came here to learn how to play hockey. Then I was lucky enough to be drafted. Now I just have to make the team. I don’t even think about the money at this point. I don’t care who’s going to offer me what. Lots of people asked me: ‘What if you’re offered big contract? Would you leave?’ I thought I said everything that was needed to be said when I said ‘I want to play in the NHL’. Yet, they still ask me this. I want to play in the NHL. That’s the bottom line. Knock it off.

Osadchenko: Could you tell me a little bit about what was your experience like at the rookie camp?

Yakupov: What if I don’t tell you? 

Osadchenko: ?!

Yakupov: (laughs) I’m just messing with you. Okay, where do I start? About 30-35 guys came to the camp – guys who were just drafted, free agents, Europeans… Right after we arrived we had to undergo the same tests we had last month in Toronto. Everything was pretty much identical. The next day we began the actual work. Before going to the ice we’d watch a few videos of what we’re going to work on today. It’d take us about 20 minutes. We’d skate in the morning for 2 hours. First 30 minutes we’d just work on our skating because everybody comes in a different form – some guys didn’t skate at all after last season.

Then we’d split – defensemen would go to one end, forward would go to the other end and goalies formed the last group. Every group worked on its own. Then they’d refresh the ice and we’d reunite. We were practicing 3-on-0 rushes and 3-on-1 rushes… You know, stuff like that. You have to do everything very fast so it was a lot of fun. Because it was so fast-paced, nobody would get bored even though there were a lot of people on the ice – you may be idle for 20 seconds, tops, and then you’re back in action.

Then we’d go to the arena, get changed and grab a quick lunch. Then we’d have different meetings. One day we had two chefs, who came over to tell us everything we needed to know about nutrition. After a meeting we’d have another practice with a fitness coach. With him we did some yoga. That would last also for 90 minutes. The other day we had guys coming over to tell us how to invest our money, what banks should we use and stuff like that. Money stuff. Then we had a meeting with our PR guy who told us how to talk to the media, what to tweet and what not to tweet, how should we act on social networks in general.

One day we went to Superstore with those chefs. There we split up into two teams. We were going around the store and they’d tell us what we should buy and what we shouldn’t. Then we had to pick foods so we’d cook the next day. It was like game – our team vs. the other team. We cooked salad, pasta with chicken and veggies and dessert. Judges ruled that we lost this challenge. But it was a lot of fun. Every team was divided into groups of five. My group was responsible for salad.

Osadchenko: Who was on your team?

Yakupov: Two Slovaks – Marincin and Gernat. Also, Kristians Pelss and Taylor Fedun, who was our captain.

Osadchenko: What did the Oilers PR guy tell you exactly? What aren’t you supposed to talk about?

Yakupov: No trash-talking. Lose or win – you have to respond to questions moderately. Never answer a question with a question of your own. All in all just don’t be rude. He talked about Twitter for some time. It’s not a good idea to tweet irresponsibly. You tweet something you’d better not be tweeting and before you know it everybody is all over it. You don’t want this to happen. For instance, if you’re asked a provocative question, you’d be better off ignoring it. Don’t try to be the King of Twitter or something. Tweet usual stuff. Like ‘Edmonton is a nice city’.

Osadchenko: People are getting worried your Twitter won’t be a fun place anymore. So far you’re quite open on it.

Yakupov: Look, Twitter has to be taken seriously. You may be kidding but people would think otherwise and you’d be in trouble. It can be very difficult to explain to fans that you were misunderstood.

Osadchenko: Did the chefs’ food recommendations were any different from those you received in Sarnia?

Yakupov: Not too much. I’d say it’s pretty much the same. My first year in Sarnia I stayed at Galchenyuk’s and his dad is a former hockey player, so he knows what nutrition is good for you. Then my mom cooked and my dad helped her. And my dad has been in hockey for over 20 years now, so he knows what to eat. It wasn’t a problem in Sarnia. In Edmonton they told me a few little details that I didn’t know. For instance, you have to weigh yourself after workout. If you lost a certain amount of weight, you have to drink a certain amount of water.

They gave a list of foods that you shouldn’t eat. It’s like you can’t eat them at all, but you shouldn’t. Then again it’s hard to always make right food choices. Every now and then you still want to eat some bakery or something. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s not an issue. For instance, on a game day I would never eat fries. But if I can eat something like this some other time, sure, I’ll have it. If I want to get a Subway sandwich late at night, I’d go and get it. I’d rather be sated than hungry. I can’t sleep when I’m hungry.

I was taught many things here. You’d be surprised how many exercises are out there. You look at it and you think it’s worthless. Because it looks so unnecessary. But you do it and you feel terrific. Same with protein drinks. If you started to drink one protein drink, stick to it. Don’t go around and swap it as you like. Because sometimes you feel bad during a game and you don’t know why. If you swap it as you like, you’ll never know.

Osadchenko: So you can still have traditional Tatar meals like vak-belyash and chuck-chuck?

Yakupov: It’s my favorite food! My mom likes to cook it at home. If you’re hungry, you can it quite a lot of Tatar food. I really love soups with uch-pochmak.

Osadchenko: You were born in a small town in Russia. Then you played in a small Canadian town. Edmonton must look very big to you. Do you have to adjust to it?

Yakupov: I like it. It’s quiet and beautiful. And I came here to play hockey. This is my focus now. Besides, Rexall Place is huge. You can practically live in there. When you come there you just sort of forget that there’s something else outside.

Osadchenko: Do they recognize you on the streets already, though?

Yakupov: They do and I like it. Every day there were 2,000 fans in the stands at the training camp. 2,000 fans! Can you believe it?! Guys would score a goal and fans start to cheer. It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t like we couldn’t smile and had to stay serious on the ice. Fans had fun and so did we. When you’re in a good mood, you perform better. I have never experience anything quite like this.

Osadchenko: Women are going to all over you now.

Yakupov: I’d rather prefer girls (laughs). So far it’s not like this. Perhaps, it’s because we were always under cover. We were either at the rink or hotel. It was a quiet week in this sense.

Previously by Andrey Osadchenko