Sherwood Park, AB - Nail Yakupov knows how to work a crowd. In his brief tenure as an Edmonton Oiler, that much isn’t surprising. But on Wednesday morning at Millennium Place, he took his jubilant, easy-going and happy-go-lucky attitude to the ice -- much to the delight of the 500-strong that came to watch him suit up in a midsummer practice at Oilers Development Camp.
He’s 18, on his way to the NHL, and he loves the game like no one else.
"I looked great, huh?" he laughed as he addressed the media post-practice before hopping on the bus back to Rexall Place. "It was the first time I could put on an Oilers jersey, a practice jersey and skate with guys from the organization and guys that are Oilers. I feel great. It was a great atmosphere. It was really nice.
"First practice was great. Just having fun with the group. Everything went OK, I tried to do my best, tried to score goals."
'Yak'king it up with teammates and coaches in between drills and scoring highlight-reel goals when it was business time, Nail’s orange and blue debut was a solid one. His contagious attitude spread far and wide, as an impromptu side-hug with Skating and Skills Coach Steve Serdachny lightened the mood and brought a smile to the normally serious tactician.
The No. 1 overall pick could barely stand still. Even when waiting for his turn in a drill, he was dancing in anticipation.
"You know, it's great," he said, smiling (obviously!). "It's hockey, it's your life. You've got to play hockey first. Media and other stuff is second, so for now I'm going to work, work and work.
"You've got to score goals for sure; every time, every shift -- if you can. You've got to push hard and work hard, every time, always. That's it. Simple."
Tuesday as he completed his medical/physicals at Rexall Place, he promised some "beauty fakes" at Wednesday’s on-ice opener. We didn’t see too many, but he’s eager to show them off to the large media and fan contingent at the chilly suburban rink later in the week.
"It's new equipment," Yakupov rebutted with a laugh. "I'll feel better in the second or third practice and then I'll be able to show something. As a group, we’re going to get even better as we get a chance to practice more throughout the week.
"It was a surprise [seeing so many fans]. I thought it was just going to be about 10 or 20 people, but the whole rink was full. It feels great. Thanks to everyone who came. It helped us having that great support -- we love you."
Last year at Development Camp, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wore No. 72. The digits are ultimately irrelevant at this time, but Yakupov was donning No. 64. While his want (or need) for attention is his calling card, the first overall pick isn’t tipping his hand as to what number he’ll sport when he makes the Oilers roster.
"Doesn't matter, it's just practice. I'm not on the team now. It doesn't matter what number I have, 19 or 100. If I make the team, then we'll talk.
"It's a secret for now."
If Day 1 is any indication, Yakupov is here to entertain -- on (first and foremost) and off the ice. He’s got that down.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick