Yakupov oozes star power
It was late January in Kingston, Ontario, and Sarnia star Nail Yakupov — the can't-miss, No. 1 prospect in the 2012 NHL Draft — briefly excused himself from pregame warm-ups to skate toward an admiring little girl in the crowd. He gave her a wave and a smile, and with that, his power was clear.
A natural showman, Yakupov held a visiting crowd in the palm of his hand without even scoring a goal that day.
Consol Energy Center will gets its fill of Yakupov tonight when he is expected to be selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers.
“You could tell right away that there was just something different about him,” said Sarnia forward Charlie Sarault, an OHL veteran who played on Yakupov's line most of the season. “He has a presence about him. Everyone likes him right away. You want to be around him. He's a star.”
Yakupov's physical gifts are easy to appreciate. He is an electric skater and showcases rare offensive instincts as a right winger.
Even some of hockey's biggest names compare Yakupov to a Russian star from a previous generation.
“He reminds me so much of Pavel Bure,” former Penguins coach Scotty Bowman said. “He moves like him.”
Few in hockey history have moved like Bure, which explains why Yakupov has long been ranked the top prospect in this draft.
“He just has it, whatever it is,” New Jersey Devils director of scouting David Conte said. “Sidney Crosby has it. Some people are afraid of it. But not this guy. He can do it all, on and off the ice.”
Along with his physical gifts, Yakupov's story is also rare.
While being peppered with questions about Russian stereotypes by the Canadian media at the recent NHL Draft Combine in Toronto, Yakupov politely but firmly interrupted a reporter.
“I am not Russian,” Yakupov said. “I am Muslim.”
Technically, he is both.
At 16, Yakupov decided to leave Tatarstan, a largely Muslim, Russian republic 500 miles east of Moscow. He moved to Canada and has played the past two seasons for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
“I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's the best league in the world. I wanted to be ready for it.”
Yakupov goes from silly to serious as quickly as he goes from first to fifth gear on the ice when the subject of the Kontinental Hockey League is mentioned. Some Russia players have chosen the KHL over the NHL in recent years — Czech Republic star Jaromir Jagr even did for three years — and many have questioned if Yakupov might take the same route at some point.
“I already came to Canada,” he said. “I love it here (North America). I want to be here.”
They already love him in Canada, too.
Yakupov set up the game-winning goal that day in Kingston — where Bure was strictly a sniper, Yakupov mixes slick passing skills with a wicked shot — and displayed his growing ability to entertain. The Kingston crowd reacted almost every time Yakupov had the puck, his daring rushes bringing spectators to their feet on numerous occasions. But when the game was over, and his Sarnia teammates started to skate toward the locker room, Yakupov corralled them.
Visiting fans from Sarnia has made the six-hour drive, prompting Yakupov to seek them out in the crowd and raise his stick in their direction. His teammates followed their leader.
“He's just one of those special players,” Penguins director of amateur scouting Jay Heinbuck said. “They don't come along very often.”
Even more special might be his effect on people.
An hour after his team emerged with a victory that day in Kingston, dozens of autograph seekers braved the cold to meet hockey's next star. Wearing a hood and looking like a boxer, Yakupov walked past them all, his familiar dark hair and eyes hidden by his attire. He could have escaped the crowd and sat peacefully on the team bus.
But then he smiled, turned around, removed the hood and greeted his fans.
“Not a bad word to say about him,” Sarault said. “Everyone is going to love him.”
The Yakupov era will be born tonight in Pittsburgh when he brings his charisma to Consol Energy Center.
“Hockey is my life,” he said. “It's a good life. You can't feel the pressure. You've got to be nice to the people. You've got to smile every day. You just live once.”
Players with his mix of talent and personality only come around once, too.
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-664-9161 Ext. 1975.