Nail Yakupov still had sweat falling down his forehead as a contingent of media surrounded him.
Yakupov had just finished an exhaustive workout testing at the NHL Combine in Toronto and the media wanted to speak with the consensus top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh.
Take us through your day today. What did you like and dislike about the testing?
“It’s a big day for me. It’s the first testing of my life,” Yakupov said in a deep Russian accent. “We’re having fun here. It’s good exercises. You had to show how you work and how you push (yourself). I think it’s good for us and I feel great after.”
Are you enjoying this process or are you anxious for it to be over and be drafted and move on?
“This is the best moment of my life,” Yakupov said. “It started from now at the combine and the draft. I’m excited, so are my parents and my friends. We’ll see what happens.”
All eyes were on Yakupov at the combine, as every draft prognosticator salivates over his talent and potential. Even his name seems to have him destined for great things – Nail is Arabic in origin and means “reaching, achieving or gaining success.”
"He really gets up to top speed very quickly and his hands are outstanding,” Chris Edwards of NHL Central Scouting told NHL.com. “Like Pavel Bure, Yakupov is dangerous every shift. He may not have been dominant on every shift like Bure was, but he created something every shift … you have to be aware where he is on the ice all the time."
It’s no coincidence that Yakupov plays a similar style to Bure. Yakupov idolized Bure while growing up in Nizhnekamsk, a city in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia, located 500 miles from Moscow.
“I love the way he played,” Yakupov said. “(He was) very explosive, a great skater, very creative and (he) loved to score goals.”
Yakupov, an ethnic Tartar, has dazzled over the past two seasons while playing for Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League. In his rookie campaign in 2010-11, he scored 49 goals and 101 points – breaking the team record for a rookie, set by current NHL stud Steven Stamkos (42 goals, 92 points). Yakupov was named OHL and Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year.
Yakupov followed up this past year with 69 points (31G-38A) despite being limited to only 42 games due to injury. He represented Russia at the 2012 World Junior Championships and his nine assists (tied for tournament lead) helped his native country win a silver medal.
Yakupov could become the first Russian player selected first overall in the NHL Draft since Alex Ovechkin was taken by Washington in 2004. The Edmonton Oilers, winners of the draft lottery, have the No. 1 pick in the draft.
But Yakupov doesn’t really care which team calls his name, whether it’s Edmonton at No. 1, Columbus at No. 2 or Calgary at No. 14. He just wants to play in the NHL.
“I won’t stop playing hockey if I go No. 2 or 3,” Yakupov said. “I’ll just keep working hard. For me, I want to be drafted by the NHL first, and try to play hard and help my team win. So for me, I just want to make the NHL.
“We’ll see what happens and who drafts me. I’ll be excited to wear the jersey and I want to work hard for this team and give everything to stay in the NHL.”
For Yakupov, playing in the NHL would fulfill a dream that started when he began skating at the age of 3.
“Ever since my mom and dad put Dynamo hockey skates on me all I have known was hockey,” he said. “A rink was a 10-minute walk from our house, so I spent all my time there.”
Yakupov left his hometown of Nizhnekamsk, an important center of the petrochemical industry with a population of 230,000, at the age of 16 to join Sarnia. Yakupov battled through the culture and language barriers that await all European prospects.
“It’s tough. You’re young and can’t speak English,” he said. “The first year was tough. Some questions were hard for me (to answer). Now it’s OK.
“Hockey is my life. You can’t be pressured before the game. Just have fun, play well and play hard.”
Yakupov, who is Muslim, seems to handle everything with ease, whether it’s learning a new language, learning a new culture, learning a new style of play, dealing with the media or the pressure of being the top-rated draft prospect. His comfort may have something to do with his playful personality.
“You have to smile everyday because you only live once,” he said. “You have to push everything you can everyday. Be nice with the guys, with the fans. Treat your family well.”
The next step for Yakupov, who is training this summer in Russia, is the draft. But getting selected is really just another step toward his ultimate goal – playing in the National Hockey League.
“It’s the best league in the world,” he said. “You’ve got to work harder and be nice. Work and do everything I can for the NHL, because it’s my dream.”