Ilya Lyubushkin had to make one important stop before heading home for the summer.
Friends, after all, don't leave without saying goodbye.
Lyubushkin has developed a close bond with Coyotes fan Raquel Russell, 14. She and her mother, Stephanie, have been season ticket holders for five seasons, and partial season ticket owners since Raquel was four. Raquel has not missed a home game in four years.
The defenseman, 27, visited their North Phoenix home on Tuesday, the first day players were free from their mandated, in-season COVID-19 protocols.
Raquel and Stephanie had a birthday gift waiting for Lyubushkin: a puck painted with a portrait of Lyubushkin waving to Raquel in the stands. The image illustrates the pre-game ritual the two share.
Lyubushkin, whose name can be a tongue-twister, played his first season in Arizona in 2018-19. The pronunciation was a challenge for Raquel, 11, at the time. But she wanted to master it.
Her intrigue with the defenseman's name led to a fixation on Lyubushkin every time he was on the ice. She studied his "one-on-one" play in the defensive zone. She took a liking to his tough and often underappreciated role.
Raquel soon purchased a "Lyubushkin 46" jersey and made a sign reading, "Lyubushkin's Number One Fan." She routinely watched warm-ups from the glass, where Lyubushkin performed his solo drills. He noticed her jersey and her sign and, one night, posed for a selfie. After the photo, he gave her a fist bump through the glass.
The two would fist bump every game thereafter.
Raquel eventually contacted Lyubushkin's wife, Diana, on Instagram.
"That Easter (in 2019), Diana came to our seats with a stick from Ilya and a stuffed bunny," Stephanie Russell, Raquel's mother, said. "And then they just stayed connected on Instagram, and it just grew. Ilya sent Raquel his Russian hockey jersey. He's just a really good guy. It's been going on for quite some time."
So, Raquel is the proud owner of a rare, Lyubushkin Yaroslavl Lokomotiv jersey. Lokomotiv was Lyubushkin's team in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.
Lyubushkin was not widely recognized in his first year with the Coyotes; he was still trying to establish himself as a NHL player.
"I think he just really appreciated the comfort," Stephanie Russell said. "Raquel has made a sign every game for him. Every game, it's 'Ilya, Ilya, Ilya.' Everything has been Ilya for two years. I think he just really 100 percent appreciates it, honestly. And then we all just became friends."
Since then, Raquel and Stephanie have baked cookies for Lyubushkin and Diana and their two boys, and they made a jersey for the Lyubushkin family dog, "Poofy."
"Ilya knows Raquel. He knows her school. He knows she's going to be in high school," Stephanie Russell said. "They have a rapport. When (Ilya's wife) sees me, it's a big hug. It's just family. That's what we tell each other. We're family, that's it. We're family now."
Raquel and Ilya have established a texting routine, at 1:30 p.m., on game days.
"He always texts back," she said, with a smile in her voice. "We started texting each other fist bumps, like the emojis, and he figured out how to change the color of the emoji so that it's his skin tone and my skin tone, which is really cool, because I didn't know how to do that. During warm-ups, he gives a fist bump to me at the glass, and then after the game he sends fist bumps to me through text."
(This past season, Lyubushkin waved at Raquel from afar, since COVID-19 protocols did not allow fans to interact with players or watch warm-ups from the glass.)
Lyubushkin can be critical of his own performance.
"He texts Raquel and apologizes when he plays badly," Stephanie Russell said. "He apologizes and says, 'I'm sorry, I'll play better next game.' That's what he always tells her."
Stephanie Russell remembered an enjoyable moment with Lyubushkin during "Fan Fest" in 2018. After a few games of "Skee-Ball," Lyubushkin almost deserted the rest of the team to play laser tag with Raquel and Stephanie.
"He said, 'Let's go play something else,'" Stephanie Russell said. "But then the Coyotes guy comes over to me, like the guy running the team, and he says, 'Excuse me, Lyubushkin can't go anywhere with you. Can you tell him? He's got to stay here.' And I was like, 'Aww, Lyubushkin, you can't play with us. They need you to stay.' And he was like, 'Ohh, okay.' That was so funny that he tried to leave, but he didn't know good enough English back then to understand really what was going on."
As for Tuesday's visit. Raquel and Stephanie received a text from the Coyotes defenseman.
"He said, 'Are you guys home?,'" Stephanie said. "We were like, 'Oh my god, we need to brush our hair and put on make-up! I can't believe Ilya is on the way to our house.' We had a puck made for him for his birthday."
Lyubushkin came with a gift for Raquel, too -- a game-used stick.
"He signed it," Raquel said. "He put, 'Dear friend,' on it, because when we text, he always says, 'Thank you, my dear friend.'"
Ilya said Tuesday, 'I love you guys. I love you guys, I love you so much, guys.'"
All Photos Courtesy: Raquel and Stephanie Russell