Evgeni Nabokov ended his long, storied National Hockey League career in the same place it started: San Jose.
Nabokov, 39, announced his retirement today from the NHL during an emotional press conference at the SAP Center. The Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, native played 697 games over 14 seasons in the NHL, 563 of those games with the Sharks.
“People talk about the statistics,” San Jose GM Doug Wilson said before introducing Nabokov on Wednesday. “They’ll talk about your career. Your place in this organization and the history of this franchise is etched in stone.”
Nabokov owns a career record of 353-227-29-71 and 59 shutouts with a .911 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average. During his retirement announcement, Nabokov thanked his coaches, the fans, and, most of all, his former teammates.
“The players, my teammates, I think without them, I would not achieve anything because it’s a team sport and if I would not have such great teammates, I would not be even close to where I am right now,” Nabokov said, fighting back tears. “I want to thank you guys who are right now here and I want to thank the New York guys and the Tampa guys who were also really good to me.”
Nabokov, a ninth-round selection (219th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the offseason. He played in 11 games with the Bolts, going 3-6-2 with a .882 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average after spending the previous three seasons with the New York Islanders.
Away from the ice, Nabokov was a veteran leader in the Lightning locker room. He was a good-natured individual with a contagious personality and a penchant for delivering a timely one-liner.
The Lightning waived Nabokov on February 1 and, after clearing waivers, was traded to San Jose on Monday for future considerations. His last appearance in a NHL uniform came January 12 in Philadelphia.
“Nabby was a really good guy more than anything,” Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He was always coming in in a good mood and always a positive attitude. Just a good guy to have around on the team, and I’m happy he was able to go back to San Jose.”
Nabokov mentored Lightning rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, even though it was Vasilevskiy who would eventually take his spot on the roster. Before Vasilevskiy’s first career NHL start in Philadelphia (Dec. 16), he had lunch with Nabokov, who told the youngster to trust his defensemen and to be confident in his ability.
“He’s a grand person, an unbelievable person,” Vasilevskiy said. “He really helped me with my first start. He’s a good friend and a good coach.”
Asked if he had a future in coaching during his retirement announcement, Nabokov was noncommittal.
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far,” he said. “But, hockey, that’s all I know, that’s all I can do. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so we’ll see.”
Nabokov said back in November when San Jose came to play the Bolts at Amalie Arena, he remembered telling someone on the Sharks he thought he could play another five years in the league. But as his time on the ice diminished, so did his enthusiasm for the game.
“I start playing less, and I start feeling like I’m not enjoying it as much because you practice but in practice you don’t know when you’re going to play and how you’re going to play,” he said. “The biggest thing is you don’t feel you can impact the team the way you wanted to.”
Nabokov won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2001. He was a NHL All-Star and a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie.
His only regret?
“The only thing that I think is missing is a Stanley Cup,” he said, before stepping down from the podium and away from the game as a player for the final time.