Now in his sixth season with the San Jose Sharks, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is considered as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. Sharks fans have become accustomed to chanting “Nabby, Nabby, Nabby” when the Russian netminder makes an unbelievable save to preserve a San Jose win.
Growing up as a young boy in Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, hockey was all Nabokov knew. He was born into a hockey background, as his father, Viktor, was a goaltender for his hometown team. Since the age of six, Evgeni was strapped into goalie pads and taught how to man the net the proper way from his father.
“He was a goalie too, so obviously he knew a lot about goaltending,” said Nabokov. “He basically was trying to build me right from the beginning. He knew exactly what he wanted to see in me and would work with me all the time up until I came out here when I was 19. We would constantly talk about hockey at home. He was a huge part of making me who I am.”
It was Sharks Special Consultant to the General Manager John Ferguson who discovered Nabokov at the age of 19 on a scouting trip and told the organization about him. A ninth round draft pick (219th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Nabokov was happy to have the opportunity to play hockey professionally in the United States, despite only having dreams as a child of playing in Moscow.
“To be honest, playing in the NHL wasn’t a dream of mine,” he said. “When we were growing up, all we thought about was trying to get to one of the Moscow teams. If you’re playing for a Moscow team, that means you would play for the national team. It was really big over there and the hockey was real good. It’s changed a bit over the years because of everyone coming to the NHL, but before that it was all about playing for Moscow.”
Making the transition from Kazakhstan to the United States, as expected, was not the easiest for Nabokov. But similar to the way he performs on the ice, “Nabby” rose to the occasion and gradually learned the English language and customs.
“I had a desire to learn everything and when you have that I think it’s a little bit easier to do,” he said. “I thought I knew a little bit of English in school, but when I came over I realized I didn’t know much. It was easy for me to learn because I knew the alphabet and the numbers so I knew how the English language worked.”
He received help learning English from his future wife Tabitha, but despite being located in San Jose, Nabokov wants to teach his daughter how to speak Russian.
“I’m trying to work with her, learning both languages,” he said. “I want her to speak both so when I have a chance, I talk to her in Russian. It’s a little bit tough because my wife speaks English, so it’s a work in progress.”
“Nabby” began his professional career playing nearly three full seasons in the American Hockey League before making his first NHL start on Jan. 19, 2000. That night was truly unforgettable for the future Calder Memorial Trophy winner, as he led the Sharks to a 0-0 tie. Opposing him in net that night was none other than future Hall of Famer Patrick Roy.
“Back then I wasn’t thinking about playing against Patrick Roy, I was thinking about how we were going to play,” said Nabokov. “I thought we played pretty good. It was a lot of shots and all that but I don’t think I faced very many breakaways. The guys helped me a lot. It’s probably my most memorable experience since I’ve been in the League.”
His first start was just one of many career highlights to come for Nabokov. Perhaps one of his greatest feats (in the eyes of many) came in the 2001-02 season, when Nabby became the first European-born goaltender (seventh all-time) to score a goal in a regular season game. But if you ask Nabokov about the goal, the humble goaltender won’t gloat about it.
”I always laugh about my goal,” said Nabokov. “It’s nice to have it in your pocket and it was exciting for the day, but to be honest, it’s not as big of a deal to me.”
Nabokov’s career is just taking off. The 30-year-old goaltender is the backbone of the Sharks franchise, holding nearly every Shark all-time goalie record-including games played (268), minutes (15,248), wins (124), ties (29), decisions (252), shutouts (26) and shots against (6,969) among others.
FERGUSON HONORED The American Hockey League announced today that former Winnipeg Jets and AHL alumni Serge Savard, John Ferguson (who currently serves as the Special Consultant to the General Manager for the Sharks) and Ab McDonald, with 19 Stanley Cup championships among them, will be honored at the 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, to be held Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg
Ferguson, in his 10th season with the Sharks, played three seasons with the AHL’s Cleveland Barons and was a first team AHL All-Star in 1963 before spending the next eight years in Montreal, where he was a member of five Stanley Cup winners. Ferguson served as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series, then became head coach and general manager of the New York Rangers. Ferguson would go on to spend 11 seasons as GM of the Winnipeg Jets (1978-89), leading the club to the final WHA championship in 1979.
NEXT GAME The Sharks will look to get back in the win column when they play host to the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday at HP Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the HP Pavilion box office and all Ticketmaster locations. The game will be aired on FSN Bay Area, the Sharks Radio Network and sjsharks.com.