I first saw Evgeni Nabokov play in the spring of 1995 when he was a young 19-year-old rookie starting his professional career with Dynamo Moscow. I was 14 at the time and still living in Russia. Nabokov's arrival to the hockey scene coincided with my ability to start going to big hockey games on my own. As it happened, Nabokov was playing for a bitter rival, as I grew up being a Spartak Moscow fan. No one on that Dynamo team irritated me more. I could stand Viktor Kozlov because he was a smart player and I always learned something from watching him play. I could tolerate Afinogenov, because he was a magician with the puck. But I hated Nabokov more than any other, because I don't remember a single game that Spartak ever won against Dynamo during that era. Nabokov was to blame for most of these losses. He was so good that he was named the MVP of the playoffs as he led Dynamo to the championship in that season.
But my dislike of Nabokov went away almost in an instant during one game in the following season. It was a regular season game, and as was the tradition for Spartak hard core fans at the time, I sat behind the opposing goalie during the home game. Nabokov was in the net. With the action happening on the other side of the rink, and Nabby quietly resting in the net, I shouted "Nabokov - you're garbage!" To my surprise, he not only heard me, but actually turned around, raised his stick as to greet me, and then pointed to the score board with a big smile. With the score 3-0 in favor of Dynamo, the joke was on me. He continued to wave for a few more seconds, and generated a laughter in the crowd. The whole section loved his reaction to my heckling, and all had a good laugh at my expense. I didn't mind, as I had never interacted with a pro athlete during a game this way before (and never since, despite my honest attempts of calling Hiller or Niemi garbage). The fact that Nabokov took the time to turn around and interact with a young fan, and do it in a funny and respectable manner made me an instant fan.
Fast forward 15 years later to April 29th of 2010, Game 5 of the Sharks - Red Wings series in San Jose. When the game buzzer went off to signify the end of the game and the series, perhaps the most memorable moment was the replay from the netcam behind Nabokov. He was jumping up and down like a kid celebrating the win. Knowing how poorly Nabokov had played against Detroit in his career, I knew how much that win meant for him, and I couldn't have been happier for him.
To me the yesterday's news of not resigning Nabokov meant more than the ease of the salary cap situation for the Sharks next season. As Nabby moves on, I feel that we're losing a friend, for no one but Patrick Marleau has been here longer than him. We felt his pain when he was getting pulled from a game. We celebrated with him when he won games with individual performances. It is fair to say that this is the biggest departure in the Sharks' history since the Owen Nolan trade, and it feels very similar. We loved both equally. As we bid farewell to Nabby, let's take a look at where his career started and what we'll remember about him.
Evgeni started playing hockey when he was 8 years old. His dad Viktor Nabokov, was also a professional hockey player when Nabby was growing up -- and also a goaltender. During the golden era of Soviet hockey in the '80s, every kid wanted to play hockey, so neither of the parents thought too much about it at the time. Young Evgeni first started as a defender and eventually made the decision to switch to a goalie on his own. His dad said that one day he showed up at home after a road trip and discovered his son had full goaltender equipment sitting in his room. He made no attempts to talk him out of it. With time as Nabby was growing up and starting to show signs of potential, it was his dad who took the time to train him and pass on the knowledge of the game. When asked who had the biggest influence on Nabby's early hockey career, Evgeni always credits his dad. In fact, the reason why Nabby is wearing the no. 20 jersey is not because the great Russian goalie Tretiak wore no. 20, but it's because his father Viktor wore the number as a player.
However, as time to become the professional player arrived, Nabby managed to stay under the radar of most NHL scouts. It could've been because the NHL scouts didn't travel to Kazakhstan on a regular basis. But either way, one NHL team got lucky, and spotted Nabby before anyone else did. In fact, there is little doubt in my mind that drafting Nabokov in the 9th round of the 1994 NHL draft has been the biggest steal in the San Jose Sharks' history. The team scout Tim Burke managed to lay his eye on Nabokov before Nabby ever played a single game on a professional level. Burke in fact was in Russia scouting another player, but hearing that Nabokov came from a good hockey family, he noted that he might be worth drafting at a later round. And that's exactly what the Sharks did.
His dad remembered that he didn't think much about the news that his son Evgeni got drafted into the NHL, especially when he heard he was drafted at spot 219 (curiously enough, two spots behind Tim Thomas and seven spots ahead of Tomas Vokoun - what a 9th round!). His son told him he wanted to go play there, to which his dad responded, "that's a bit of a low number to be drafted at, don't you think?".
And yet the young kid out of Kazakhstan defied all the odds. After a few years in Russia and then in the Sharks farm club system, Nabokov made it all the way to San Jose. He became the starter with the Sharks in 2001/02 NHL season and did not surrender his spot for the next five years. He's played in 563 regular season games (380 more games then the next goaltender Arturs Irbe on the all-time Sharks list) and in 80 playoffs games, all with the Sharks.
I'm not sure what everyone's first thought was when the news came out yesterday that Nabokov will not be returning to San Jose. My first thought was that I can't imagine him wearing any other NHL jersey. I can't imagine him being a visitor in the Sharks Tank or worse, making a circus save on Devin Setoguchi's one-timer. The reality of Nabby being gone may then settle in. But for now, it's still hard to believe.
But one thing is certain, he will be missed by the City. No one generated as much cheer during the team's introductions in pregame shows as did Nabokov. No other player got the fans to cheer his name as often during the game as did Nabby. He'll also be missed in the locker room where he was one of the vocal leaders. Finally, those of us who write about hockey will miss his honesty and his willingness to talk to the media, and not beat around the bush after a tough loss. He never talked with cliches, he never escaped via secret routes and he was never afraid to admit his fault when he knew his poor play cost the team a game.
While Nabokov will likely never wear teal again, we'll always have this as our memory of him -
- his shutout to start his NHL career, followed by the Calder Trophy win as the best NHL rookie
- his goal against the Vancouver Canucks
- his 293 regular season and 40 playoffs wins for the Sharks
- his 57 career NHL shutouts
- 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs when he became the main reason why the Sharks reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history
- his brilliant play in the 2007/8 season that should've won him the Vezina trophy
- his saves on Kovalchuk and a shutout period in the 2008 All-Stars game
- his unbelievable playoffs saves on Owen Nolan in the Calgary series and on Brad Richards in the Dallas series
- finally, his victory jump at the end of the Detroit series last April. None of the Nabokov's moments was sweeter.