Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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“Are you nervous, or is something going on with your family?”

It is a question no athlete dreams of hearing in the prime of their lives, but these are the words that told Avangard Omsk forward Nail Yakupov that his career was in jeopardy. Plagued with dangerous complications from COVID-19, the former first-overall NHL draft pick was sidelined for the entirety of the KHL postseason. He watched his teammates secure the club’s first Gagarin Cup from the stands, but make no mistake, Yakupov was far from a silent bystander. His locker room pep talk was the wind beneath the Hawks’ wings as they battled through one of the wildest playoff series in KHL history—an Eastern Conference Final versus Kazan, in which neither team ever won a game at home.

“The first game I watched from the stands in Kazan, it was like a gladiator show,” Yakupov described from Saint Petersburg, where Avangard competed in the preseason Puchkov Memorial Tournament. “In my imagination, I tried to put myself on the ice. I asked myself, ‘What would I do in this situation and in this type of game?’ For the first ten minutes, it was just hitting, skating, hitting. The crowd was going crazy. It was so hard to watch, and it was so hard to understand how tough and how hard they played at that moment.”

Yakupov was drafted first overall by Edmonton in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He logged time with the Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche prior to his return to Russia in 2018. The Nizhnekamsk native competed for SKA Saint Petersburg and Amur Khabarovsk en route to Avangard’s championship roster.

I caught up with Yakupov—now thankfully in good health—to discuss his temporary transition from player to fan, relationship with Bob Hartley and much more.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Avangard iced a very young roster in Saint Petersburg. Although they lost, how do you feel that your juniors performed? 

Nail Yakupov (NY): It’s hard to say that we are looking for good results right now. We lost, but if you look at our team and the way we played today, I think it was more than okay. I think it was a good game, especially for our young guys—we called up three from juniors. But to be honest, I don't like to lose even when I'm not playing. 

GK: Do you believe that the role youth played in last season’s championship—a necessity due to COVID—will impact league-wide mentality toward young players? 

NY: I think it's like this everywhere now. We are in a time where management and coaches are looking for young blood because they are shrinking the rinks. For that, I could say you need a lot of young players just to skate and hit, but I think we still need mature and older players who know how to play smarter, because it's not good to skate back and forth all of the time. I know some players who are more than 30 years old and they’re in better shape than guys at 18 or 19. You are either a professional or not, you know what I’m saying? It’s about how badly you want to play for a long time in this league. Every year you're getting older, and you have to prepare better. You have to do the things you never did when you were a kid.

GK: Ilya Kovalchuk, who anchored your locker room last season, is a shining example of this by all accounts. 

NY: I hadn’t played with Kovy before, but I had seen how he was working out and I was really surprised—good surprised. He took three or four young guys, like Chinakhov and Chistyakov, and worked with them for the whole playoffs. He would just grab them and say, "I'm going to take you back. I want you to do everything I'm going to do."

We have one of the best strength coaches in the league in Brandon Bovee, and even he said that he trusted Kovy to work with those guys. But the guy just works his ass off. One day he was sweating and I was thinking to myself, “What are you doing? We have a game tomorrow.” But Kovy is just like that.

GK: You were sidelined for the entire postseason due to serious complications from COVID. How did you first discover that you were unable to play? 

NY: We had just come back from Chelyabinsk and underwent some medical tests. That night, I got a call from the doctor and he asked me if everything was okay. I was like, “Yeah—why are you asking me this?" And he said, "Are you nervous, or is something going on with your family?” I didn’t know why he was asking me that, and it got under my skin. He told me that my results weren’t that good, and it seemed like I was anxious. The next day, I went to be checked again and we were supposed to go on the road. A few days later, I was packing for the trip and got another call from the doctor. He said, "You're not going. You need to be checked at the hospital.”

GK: That must have been terrifying. Did you feel normal at the time? 

NY: I didn't feel anything. It was strange. I didn't go on the road and stayed in Moscow. I went to see all of the doctors and have the medical tests again—I even went to Europe. I didn't go to the rink for a month and my schedule was basically home, hospital, home. After a month, my tests started getting better and I started to train. I skated with the backup and injured players because I thought I would be ready for the second round against Magnitogorsk. I went for another checkup and they said, “You cannot skate.”

I knew it was going to go away, but you just need some time. They told me this is a problem now for some athletes—like soccer and hockey players—if they contract COVID-19. You can’t push with it because it’s so dangerous, and you just need time. 

GK: You watched your team win the Gagarin Cup from the stands. How did you cope with any associated frustrations? I’d imagine that a great competitor would be aching to be on the ice.

NY: I tried to be so close to the team. I knew that I was not going to play, but I was flying with the team anyway. I wasn’t nervous about my situation—I was nervous about the way we'd play. [Laughs] I kindof became a fan for a couple of months, the big kid cheering for his team for the last twenty years. That’s how deep it was.

GK: You were more than a fan. You gave one of the most passionate locker room speeches ever in Kazan—and it was caught on tape! Talk us through that. 

NY: Yeah, because you know what, it was all-in. We were so close. It was already the third round. The first game I watched from the stands in Kazan, it was like a gladiator show. It was really hard to watch. In my imagination, I tried to put myself on the ice. I asked myself, “What would I do in this situation and in this type of game?" For the first ten minutes, it was just hitting, skating, hitting. The crowd was going crazy. It was so hard to watch, and it was so hard to understand how tough and how hard they played at that moment. They missed their chances at the start, a couple of misses, empty-netters, and then there were huge saves by our goalie. We won that game and I just said the truth. I said, "To play this game, you’ve got to have big balls.”

I knew I wasn’t going to play any games in the playoffs, but I just wanted to win so badly. I was dreaming about the day we were going to lift that cup. As we got closer and closer, I was feeling really good. I think that Kazan series was the best ever in the KHL. For us, it felt like Kazan was the Finals.

GK: What is your relationship to Bob Hartley, particularly after navigating such a trying medical crisis together? 

NY: I had heard a lot of stories about Bob in the NHL and KHL, about the way Avangard was playing, the way he was coaching. The way he gets under your skin and works on so many details. When I played for Saint Petersburg, I'm not going to lie, I was hating him because they were such a tough team to play against. A lot of players who played in Avangard would say, "It's hard to play on Bob's team.” I think they were first or second in the KHL when I was in Khabarovsk, and I liked the way they were working to try to trade for me. When it finally happened, the GM called me first—but Bob called me second. It’s not a Russian thing to do. That was the one thing I noticed right away about how good he was, what a professional.

Obviously it's really unbelievable for young players to have him as a coach because he teaches us how to play. I would have liked to have Bob at the start of my career. He even said to me once, "I wish I had you when you were in Edmonton. I wish you had come to Calgary.”

I think a lot of coaches should take something from this guy because he’s going to be good for Russian hockey. Some people throw him under the bus in interviews over his system or by saying it’s not interesting to watch, but they’re wrong. This team isn’t about talent or skill. If you have that, you’re lucky, but you have got to work.

GK: I’ve heard you opted to stay at Avangard despite higher offers from other clubs. 

NY: I had a few offers where the money was better than Avangard, but I have enough to live. It’s my job, and you have got to enjoy your work. I think a large percentage of people in the world are not happy about what they do, but I think it's double exciting when you have your favorite thing to do. Even before I knew my medical results, the team had already offered me a contract. I didn't click the button right away, but in my head, I knew that I was going to stay for sure.

GK: Who would you say has had the biggest influence on your career, outside of your coaches? 

NY: My family for sure. They were with me when I was playing juniors in Sarnia [Sting]. When I got drafted in Edmonton, they moved with me—my mom, my sister and my dad. When I was over there and they were in Russia, they had to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to watch games, which I hated. They were always saying that when I have kids, I will understand how it is. I'm like, "Okay, but you don't have to wake up all the time, 82 times a year, at 2 or 3:00 in the morning. You’ll kill your nervous system.” I want them to be safe, and I want to have my parents for a long time. I wish that every game, there was no power at home for a couple of hours.

GK: I can look into cutting the power lines for you, if you want. 

NY: We can find someone, for sure.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
exclusive for khl.ru

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