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For Nabokov, career almost abandoned ends at start

by Kevin Woodley

Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov retired from a 14-year NHL career Wednesday, one that almost ended before it started.

Twice, in fact, Nabokov almost bailed on the San Jose Sharks franchise he leads in most goaltending categories.

Late-round steals: Goalies in the '94 Draft

There was a Russian goalie named Evgeni taken in the first round of the 1994 NHL Draft, but unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, it wasn't Evgeni Nabokov, but rather Evgeni Ryabchikov, who was selected at No. 21. Ryabchikov never made it to the NHL, kicking around in the American Hockey League, the ECHL and the Western Professional Hockey League for five seasons before returning to Russia. In fact, a closer look at that draft reveals as many NHL goalies came from the ninth round (five) as the first eight rounds combined.

No. (Round) Name NHL Team
7 (1st) Jamie Storr Los Angeles
16 Eric Fichaud Toronto
21 Evgeni Ryabchikov Boston
26 Dan Cloutier NY Rangers
44 (2nd) Jose Theodore Montreal
81 (4th) Bryan Masotta Ottawa
112 (5th) Mark McArthur NY Islanders
114 Frederic Deschenes Detroit
124 Marty Turco Dallas
143 (6th) Steve Vezina Winnipeg
149 Patrik Haltia Calgary
155 Luciano Caravaggio New Jersey
168 (7th) Steve Plouffe Buffalo
179 Chris Wickenheiser Edmonton
205 (8th) Jason Elliott Detroit
209 (9th) Vitali Yeremeyev NY Rangers
210 Frederic Cassivi Ottawa
212 Henrik Smangs Winnipeg
214 Jeremy Jablonski Edmonton
217 Tim Thomas Quebec
218 Johan Hedberg Quebec
219 Evgeni Nabokov San Jose
226 Tomas Vokoun Montreal
229 John Grahame Boston

The first was after San Jose picked him in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Draft, something he read about in a Russian newspaper. When it was time to sign three years later, Nabokov was content playing for Moscow Dynamo, the team for which he grew up cheering.

"To be honest, it was more my parents' decision whether to let me go or not," Nabokov told during the 2007-08 season, admitting he was close to not coming to North America at all. "I was thinking that way. But we made a decision and said, 'OK, we'll give it a try.'"

A few months later, Nabokov regretted the decision.

Struggling on the ice with the transition to smaller rinks and a different style of play in the American Hockey League, and off it with a language he barely spoke, Nabokov almost went back to Russia during his first season.

"I wasn't happy the way everything was happening, and then one time coach said, 'You are playing today,' in the morning, and three hours later he came to me and said, 'You are not playing,'" Nabokov said. "That's when I was like 'OK, maybe it's time to go back home,' and I said goodbye. But I had a really good friend helping me a lot, Anna [Gorouven], and we sat down and I told her what I was feeling and I was [upset] and said, 'I'm going to go back home. I enjoyed my time at home, my career was good.' But she said, 'You came here to reach certain goals and maybe you should be more patient.'"

Nabokov took her advice and stayed, and soon met another woman named Tabitha, who he later married.

"So I said, 'OK, I'll give it another shot,'" Nabokov said, smiling.

So it was a girl that kept him in the NHL?

"Well, girls -- plural," Nabokov said, this time adding with a long pause and another big smile, "And then Warren."

That's Warren Strelow, the longtime goalie coach for the Sharks and USA Hockey before he died in 2007.

Nabokov went to Gorouven, who passed away in 2004, with his early frustrations instead of Strelow as a function of language; she spoke Russian and Strelow did not. It was not a reflection on the mentor-pupil relationship only just starting to build into something special between Nabokov and Strelow.

"We could communicate on the ice, but off the ice it was tough," said Nabokov, who went by John early in his career because he worried Americans would struggle with his real name. "Plus I didn't know the guy that much yet, so I didn't share a lot with him."

That changed quickly. Strelow began sharing his considerable knowledge, working to refine the positioning and patience of an active, athletic goalie whose style was originally developed by Nabokov's dad, Viktor, a professional goaltender for 18 seasons back in Russia.

Three years after teaming up with Strelow, Nabokov won the 2001 Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. He had a 2.19 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 66 games, playing in the NHL All-Star Game that season. By the time his 10 seasons with San Jose ended in 2010, Nabokov was the Sharks leader in games played (563), wins (293) and shutouts (50), all records that stand.

Nabokov's accomplishments, including parts of another four seasons with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, happened playing the same old-school, narrow-stance style developed with Strelow.

"He’s still in my head," Nabokov said.

Strelow's three-step plan (1. Stay focused. 2. Remember your fundamentals. 3. Have fun) remained taped to Nabokov's locker long after Strelow passed away. Gorouven and Strelow each remained represented on the back of his mask, even in Tampa Bay this season.

"I still hear him and replay visions of things we talked about and did together," Nabokov said. "I'll make a save or miss one and something Warren once told me rewinds in my head."

The style stuck too, even through subtle evolutions during the years.

Nabokov always stood out for simply standing up more in an age of drop-first, slide-everywhere goalies, moving more on his skates than anyone other than recently retired Martin Brodeur.

Nabokov added some elements of the modern butterfly to his play off the posts and from his knees, but more often he moved on his skates, and recovered to them, rather than sliding. His trademark remains setting up for a faceoff with pads stacked upright, symbolic of a simple-but-powerful style combining patient reads with strong pushes made possible by the extension out of that narrowed stance.

It allowed Nabokov to play more aggressively than many of his peers, and though that style burned him at times late in his career, it allowed him to play bigger than his 6-foot frame for the majority of it.

"There are so many good goalies with so many different styles," said Nabokov, crediting current Sharks goalie coach Wayne Thomas for continuing Strelow's teachings. "If you start concentrating on what they're doing instead of focusing on your game it could get into your head. I never once asked myself, 'What if I play this style or made this type of save?' I just feel I'd get lost. I know exactly what I need to do."

Nabokov did it well enough to reach No. 18 on the all-time NHL win list with 353, and No. 17 in shutouts with 59. Not bad for a goaltender who almost didn't come to the NHL in the first place.

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