Back a couple months ago, I was sent a copy of San Francisco Chronicle veteran Ross Mckeon’s book “100 Things Sharks Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.” Those that know me understand it takes me a very long time to get through books, but I’ll say that as someone who wasn’t sentient for much of the early days of the Sharks franchise I found McKeon’s books extremely informative and a lot of fun to read.
I’ve included an excerpt from the book below. It’s a story about Evgeni Nabokov, my first favorite San Jose Shark, and his improbably journey to, and success in, the National Hockey League. Enjoy.
It’s hard to imagine a more improbably start to an NHL career than the one Evgeni Nabokov experienced.
Viewed by some as a long shot since the native of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, was a ninth-round draft pick the Sharks selected sight unseen, Nabokov was promoted three months into his third minor-league season to back up Steve Shields after San Jose traded established veteran Mike Vernon just days before.
Nabokov made his NHL debut in relief, stopping all four shots in 15 minutes at Nashville on New Year’s DAy of 2000. Ten days passed before Nabokov next saw the net — again in relief of Shields — but this time for 36:25 in a home loss to St. Louis. The rookie was credited with 14 saves on 15 shots. The one that represented his first career goal surrendered he never had a chance to stop.
That’s because it came off the stick of teammate Stephane Matteau in the form of an own goal. Nabokov had vacated his net for an extra skater on a delayed against the Blues.
Then it really got unpredictable.
Two more games passed before coach Darryl Sutter decided to give the player who affectionately became known as “Nabby” his first career start—a daunting game against Colorado where Patrick Roy loomed large in goal for the host Avalanche. The Sharks were dominated throughout, managing only 15 shouts while surrendering 39 in a game that went 65 minutes.
Final score: Sharks 0, Avalanche 0.
“Looking back, that’s what started it,” Nabokov admitted just months after retiring from the NHL in 2015. “That game showed me maybe I could play at this level. That’s when the SHarks started to believe maybe I could do something.”
“Before that they weren’t even sure what was going on with me.”
Shields injured an ankle during the second game of the following season, and NAbokov assumed the starting job. By season’s end, Nabokov was selected to the All-Star Game, ledt he Sharks tot he playoffs and won the league’s Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.
“He was so athletic, all he needed to do was adapt,” said Wayne Thomas, who coincidentally posted a shutout with Montreal during his first NHL start in 1973. “There’s guys who are a flash in the pan. They don’t try to get better every day. And if they do try sometimes they don’t get it.”
Working closely with goaltending coach Warren Strelow, Nabokov employed a combined butterfly and stand-up style that was unique during a period when goalies were otherwise quick to drop down on shots and try to cover the bottom of the net. Unlike most goalies, Nabokov was vocal and opinionated. He knew how he wanted the defense to play in front of him, and he wasn’t shy about telling them.
“You never had to worry about what he was thinking, he’d always let you know,” Patrick Marleau said. “Defensemen loved playing with him—he was their eyes basically. Nabby made it easy for the D to play in front of him.”
“I just liked talking to him,” Joe Thornton added. “He had a lot of opinions about hockey and how it should be played. It was always interesting. He’s just a smart hockey guy.”
“Guys trusted him,” Thomas said. “Goalies aren’t supposed to say anything. You know, your job is just stop the puck. Nabby was a guy who was a leader of our team, and he was right.”
While numbers jump out—nine full seasons spend as San Jose’s starter, a litany of franchise goaltending records set that stand today, and a love affair with fans who serenaded him with chants of “Nab-by, Nab-by, Nab-by”—the undercurrent for Nabokov’s success was the strong relationships he held on to dearly.
It started in his youth when his father, a pro goalie for a team in Kazakhstan named “Torpedo,” mentored Evgeni until age 18. Nabokov wore No. 20 not in honor of Soviet great Vladislav Tretiak but because his father, Viktor, wore that number. He first had Strelow in SAn Jose, then Thomas. And he had Sutter as his first coach. Sutter reminded Nabokov what drove him in Russia.
“Darryl was basically exactly what I needed,” Nabokov saided. “He would say things the way they are, not sugarcoat. I liked that. Darryl would tell you straight up you sucked. And I liked that. I knew exactly what the coach was thinking.”
“Now, looking back, I realize without all those people—and maybe even more who were involved—I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did,” he added.”
The one thing Nabokov & Co. were not able to accomplish San Jose was reaching a Stanley Cup Final. While disappointing, he dwells on the positive.
“People focus on the negative, but as a team and an organization, we never cheated the fans,” Nabokov said. “That’s the biggest thing. We were always on the ice with a good team and no one ever took a shortcut.”
You can pick up a copy of McKeon’s book on Amazon.