For the most part of his career, it hasn’t been easy being Nail Yakupov. He was drafted first overall by Edmonton in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He then lined up in the NHL with the Oilers, St. Louis Blues, and Colorado Avalanche before returning to Russia in 2018. He then competed for SKA St. Petersburg and Amur Khabarovsk en route to Avangard’s championship roster last season. After lifting the Gagarin Cup with the Hawks, Yakupov kept on lining up for Avangard, and this season he has amassed 14 (6+8) points in 18 KHL appearances, with the team now sitting in the Eastern Conference’s fifth place.
Recently, Yakupov has been instrumental in a couple of Avangard wins — he netted a double in the Hawk’s 4-3 win over Sibir on Saturday, adding a helper. On Monday, with Avangard and HC Sochi stuck on 4:4, he picked up the puck in the left circle and sent it home right over Hellberg’s right shoulder with less than a minute to the final hooter. He posted another goal earlier in the night, other than two helpers, for a sensational four-point performance.
Nail Yakupov was born on Oct 6, 1993, in Nizhnekamsk, where he started playing for Neftekhimik. Other than coaches, his family had a huge influence on Yakupov’s career.
“They were with me when I was playing juniors in Sarnia,” Yakupov told KHL.ru in September. “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.”
He played within the Neftekhimik system until 2010 when he moved to North America to join the Sarnia Sting of the OHL.
The Sting found in Yakupov a real leader — he posted 101 points in only 65 appearances and was awarded both CHL and OHL Rookie of the Year. One year later, he added another 69 points in 42 games and later was picked first overall by the Oilers in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
In the meantime, he played a prominent role for Team Russia at both U18 and U20 WJCs, medalling at both levels.
In 2012-2013, due to the NHL lockout, he started the season with Neftekhimik, then moved back to the Oilers after captaining Team Russia for yet another medal at the 2013 U20 WJC in Ufa. Yakupov had a strong rookie season with the Oilers, with 31 (17+14) points in 48 games. However, his 17 goals will remain his best performance, and he topped the 31-point mark only once, in 2014-2015, when he achieved 33 in 81 games. After a further season with the Oilers, he lined up for the St. Louis Blues and the Colorado Avalanche before returning to Russia in 2018.
After leaving the NHL, Yakupov signed with SKA St. Petersburg. He will play two years on the Neva’s shores, occasionally getting called to Team Russia at the Euro Hockey Tour level. However, in the 2020 offseason, he was traded to Amur Khabarovsk. But after only 15 games with the Tigers, another trade was very beneficial for the former first-overall pick, when he was acquired by Avangard. He then helped the Hawks in their first-ever Gagarin Cup title, even if he had to miss the playoffs for health-related issues and watch the games from the stands.
“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 kind of 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.”
He was actually more than a fan, naturally, and he was feeling for the team. He also gave a passionate speech in the locker room during the hard-fought playoff series against Ak Bars.
“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.”
This year, the Hawks are primed for another deep playoff round. And if Yakupov will be on the ice, things may become easier for Avangard in their hunt for a difficult back-to-back title.