In 2008, Steven Stamkos did not get to say goodbye to Sarnia when he became the first-overall NHL pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The next big Sarnia Sting player, Nail Yakoupov, will be more fortunate.
Edmonton's top pick, Yakupov, played 107 games for the Sting, scored 80 goals along with 170 points. On Monday night, as Team Russia's captain, he returns to the town where he matured into that top pick.
"Honestly, this town has become my home. These two years opened the doors to pro hockey," said Yakupov, whose squad leads the Subway Super Series 6-3 entering its second game vs. Team OHL. "I loved playing hockey there. I felt comfortable. Now a lot of folks text me things like 'Hey, we're waiting for you, come here soon! The arena's going to be packed!' It's great."
"I'm glad to come back," adds the Oilers prospect. "Everyone says it's going to be a fun hockey game. The people are waiting for it. I appreciate the opportunity to play once again in a town I spent my last two years in. We had a great team, great arena and terrific fans. I loved it. Everything was just great."
Yakupov also believes there will be no ill will from fans despite the fact that Sarnia tried to keep Yakupov following the NHL lockout, by saying he still had one year left on his OHL contract. Yakupov was let out of his contract and went to play the KHL. In 13 KHL games, he has scored 10 goals and notched four assists with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
"I don't think there's going to be any sort of conflict," said Yakupov of his return to Sarnia. "I forgot all about this story and I don't want to talk about it anymore. I'm going there only with positive emotions. I'm eager to see once again the people I lived with and played for the last two years. It's going to be fun to talk to them again."
Coming into the season, there was little doubt about Yakupov would be playing professionally. It's a fair assumption he would have made the Oilers roster and wouldn't have been able to suit up for the Super Series. When a player is so clearly above the junior hockey level, you have to wonder what motivates him in games like these.
Capitals prospect and Yakupov's former linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov found himself in a very similar situation at last year's world junior championship. According to Kuznetsov, the true level of a hockey player shows only when he plays with his peers. Is that something Nail can relate to?
"I agree with him. Sometimes you score goals in (bunches) when you play against younger guys. Sometimes you score in (bunches) when you play with older guys because they think faster and create more opportunities for you to get points. So you get points because of your teammates," said the 5-foot-10, 190-pound forward. "On the other hand, when you play against your peers, you play against some guys who are better than you and some guys who aren't. I think it's more difficult to play against your peers — no matter what team are they on. You have to bring your A-game to the table. Every game is difficult. It doesn't matter if you play against Canadians or Americans or someone else. So, yeah, I agree with (Kuznetsov)."
Yakupov had been projected to go first overall for some time before the draft and had superstar status in the OHL. However, in the KHL he is just another rookie on a pro team.
"I didn't feel like I was special when I played in Canada," he said. "I didn't pay much attention to what people were saying. It's the same thing for me in Russia. I'm just happy to be on the team. I'm happy to play. My transition to the new team went smooth. I'm not treated like a young guy over there, you know? I'm not being pushed around. I'm just a regular guy on the team. We don't have guys who think too much of themselves. So I don't feel like a (rookie) or anything."
There's a picture of Nail Yakupov in the Hockey Hall Of Fame and he's seen it as well as everyone else on Team Russia. They visited the shrine on Friday afternoon.
"I first saw the picture this past June and I was shocked," said Yakupov, with a laugh. "Now I saw it for the second time. I showed it to the guys, they looked at it for a few seconds and that was it."
Yakupov doesn't think too much of himself despite all his recent accolades. When he talks about his experience at the Subway Super Series it's never 'I' and always 'we'.
"First of all, beating Canada always feels good," he said. "Second of all, we made history. That's a bonus. Bu then again we're not getting ahead of ourselves or anything. So we won, big deal. We forgot all about that game. We rested for a few days and got ready for another game. We keep moving forward.
"Our coach (Mikhail Varnakov) means business when he tells us that we have to get out there and play hard, not just skate around," adds Yakupov. "We have proven that we can play well and win games. We've proven that Team OHL can be beaten. We're looking for a win in every game and it doesn't matter who do we play against — Team Japan, Team Germany or Team Canada."
New-look OHL opponent
Yakupov believes Game 4 will be very different. And make no mistake — he wants to shine in this one. Team OHL will have a vastly different look since this will almost be a whole new team.
"I know Team OHL is going to have a different set of players this time," he said. "I talked to one guy who played for Canada and he told me there would be like just six returnees from Game 3 in Sarnia. I know the guys who are going to play against us. It's going to be a different game. It's going to be interesting. Playing in Sarnia gives me double motivation. I didn't play there for two years for nothing. I want to my last game there to be a good one. I want to win it with Team Russia but I also want to play well myself so that the local fans would remember me."