Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
Jan 8, 2008, 10:00 AM EST
There’s no masking the obvious. A lot has happened in the life of Evgeni Nabokov since last April. You could say this quiet, proud goaltender for the San Jose Sharks has seen his life turned upside down, in fact.
First came the death of long-time friend and goalie guru Warren Strelow on the eve of the Sharks’ first Stanley Cup Playoff game in Nashville, a 5-4 double-overtime win over the Predators.
In June, the team traded “Nabby’s” goaltending partner Vesa Toskala to Toronto. And then, shortly thereafter, Sharks executive John Ferguson, who argued vehemently that the team bring Nabokov to North America back in 1997, succumbed to cancer.
The 32-year-old netminder from Ust- Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, has become an even stronger individual following those personal tragedies. He’s clearly more driven, more focused than ever.
Nabokov knew he would have the opportunity of a lifetime this season in goal because there was no longer a Steve Shields, Johan Hedberg, Miikka Kiprusoff or Toskala there to share time between the pipes. But Nabokov never dreamed he would not only be the Sharks’ No. 1 goalie once again ... but also 1A.
That’s right every game. A total of 41 straight and 2,442 minutes this season. Backup Dmitri Patzold has played 43:35 in comparison.
"I played a lot of games in my first few years, but obviously not this many games in a row," Nabokov laughed. "But I'm enjoying every minute of it."
And why not? He’s posted a league-leading 23 wins, a 2.01 goals-against average and five shutouts.
"I've never seen Nabby play better," said Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. "He’s never been more consistently strong between the pipes."
I asked star center Joe Thornton what’s been the difference with Nabokov. His response: "I don’t ask why. All I know is that Nabby is giving us a chance to win every night."
Nabokov’s career-best is 67 games, set in 2001-02. No goaltender has every played every game since the NHL went to 80 and then 82 games per season. The record is 79 games by Grant Fuhr in St. Louis in 1995-96. Experts say no team wants to mentally and physically tax a goalie that much because the job is so important in the playoffs, even if New Jersey’s Marty Brodeur played in a career-high 78 games last season and won Stanley Cups for the Devils in 2000-01 and 2002-03 after playing in 72 and 73 games respectively.
"Why wouldn’t you keep putting your guy out there if he keeps winning and giving you the nod that he’s ready to play each night?" asked Sharks coach Ron Wilson. "It’s not like there’s a Kipper or Toskala (now starters in Calgary and Toronto respectively) behind him."
No one will doubt that goaltending, more precisely goaltenders, are the mysteries of the universe. The tendency is to immediately dismiss the difficulty of the job and say that goaltenders in hockey are different, weird, crazy, because they live in a bigger fishbowl than most athletes. They live in a giant-sized shooting gallery -- often facing shots in excess of 100 mph, or wrestling with and fighting off 200-pound power forwards who insist on screening and deflecting shots at the net to make life even more miserable for the men behind the mask.
From day-to-day, city-to-city, they stand up and face the pressure of being the last line of defense. If they make a mistake, that red light flashes behind them for everyone to see.
And Nabokov is crazy … crazy good. He’s given the Sharks a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup the last few years. And, if you spend 10 minutes or so with him, you learn that he’s a quiet, yet funny, family man. He loves Russian hip-hop music, likes the modern classic movies like The Godfather, Wedding Crashers and Analyze This. But there’s nothing more important to him than spending time with his wife, Tabitha, and kids, Emily and Andrei.
"Even if I’m a little more tired from playing all of the games, I always have time for my family," he said. "I learned that from my parents. My dad (Viktor) was a pretty good goaltender and my mom (Tatyana) worked as an engineer at a factory. But they always had time for me."
Nabby learned his trade at a very early age from his dad, Viktor.
"He played for 18 seasons in Russia and Kazakhstan," Nabokov said. "We all watched and idolized Vladislav Tretiak, but I admired my dad for what he taught me about life. There was little TV in Russia back then, but I’ll never forget seeing my dad play in his final game, a win, back in 1987. He had to retire early because of so many knee injuries, but I remember seeing him play in that game with so much pride and passion.
"I was lucky to have two goalie coaches in my lifetime -- first my dad and then Warren Strelow. They taught me a lot ... about everything."
While those around the Sharks say that Nabby is a different person in goal this season, he just shrugs. Different? Not really. After all, this veteran netminder has produced 30 or more wins three times in six seasons, six or more shutouts four times and a goals-against average under 2.3 five times.
"I’ve played 66 and 67 games in a season before," Nabokov said matter-of-factly, referring to his first two full seasons in the NHL. "No one is fresh, fresh. Most of the job is mental. It’s staying sharp and alert and having the mindset that the most important save is always the next one ... and then being prepared be ready to make that next stop, whether it’s a rebound or the next shift."
Ron Wilson says that Nabokov always wanted to be “The Man,” but the coach doesn’t think he really came to training camp in the shape he should have been and he’d often be set back by groin or stomach muscle injuries.
"He’d come in every year figuring he’d work himself into shape, but then he’d be sidelined," Wilson observed. "This season, he came to camp in great shape and it shows in the way he’s playing."
As mysterious as most of the puckstoppers in the game, Nabokov got this giant smile on his face and said he hadn’t prepared any differently in the off-season. Same weight. Same everything ...
"The only differences was that I did a lot more stretching to strengthen my groin and core muscles," Nabby explained.
Perhaps the main reason for Nabokov’s great success this season, especially in the Sharks’ 15-3-2 road record, is an extra focus, drive, dedication to the job. That drive started last April 11, when Nabby lost Strelow, his North American father figure and mentor. Strelow was the Sharks’ long-time goalie coach. He was 73 when he died after being hospitalized in February with a stroke. Strelow was the goalie coach for three NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota while working for Herb Brooks and served in the same capacity when the United States won the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980. He worked with the Sharks since their inception. And ...
"He’s still in my head," Nabokov said, with a whimsical look on his face. "I still hear him and replay visions of things we talked about and did together in the past. I’ll make a save or miss one and something that Warren once told me kinds of rewinds in my head.
"It’s funny, but when I started to work with him I only spoke Russian and he only spoke English. But he was able to communicate what he wanted me to do with no trouble.
Nabokov still has Strelow’s three-step plan taped to his locker back home in San Jose. It reads: 1. Stay Focused. 2. Remember Your Fundamentals. 3. Have Fun.
But there’s one more -- and Nabokov says this one is for Warren.
"He achieved a lot of success in his life, but the one goal he had that he never won was a Stanley Cup," Nabokov said. "I’d like nothing better than to win one for Warren."
A mystery man no more
Evgeni Nabokov’s rise to fame in the NHL will always be shrouded by mystery.
In 1994, the San Jose Sharks took him with their ninth-round pick, 219th overall, in the draft, despite never having seen Nabokov play in person or even on tape. The Sharks’ interest was induced by his goaltending bloodline -- Evgeni's father, Viktor, was a goalie of some repute for 18 years in Kazakhstan -- and some inside information that he was headed to Moscow Dynamo, one of Russia's top clubs.
Three years later, the Sharks were looking to add a goaltender or two to their organization and team executives John Ferguson and Wayne Thomas went to Turku, Finland, to watch the European championships in which Nabokov was scheduled to play. Ferguson came back and raved about Nabokov's active stick, comparing him to Hall of Famer Johnny Bower.
Ferguson then insisted that San Jose's scouting department compile videotape so that then-G.M. Dean Lombardi could see Nabokov for himself.
The Sharks found some footage. Unfortunately, it turned out to be three years old, showing Nabokov when he was 19 and didn't stop much.
"When Fergie saw that videotape," Lombardi told me a few years ago, "he started screaming that someone had switched tapes, that this wasn't his guy."
Thomas just laughed at the story and added: "Nabby was always very athletic. Once he got over here, Warren (Strelow) preached patience, positioning and a few other techniques he would have to learn to play in the North American game. I remember one of them was handling the puck. Now, he’s pretty good at it."
Nabokov just laughed when he heard that videotape story and Fergie’s fiery response to seeing a much less developed Evgeni on tape.
"I was lucky enough to have two great goaltending coaches in my life," Nabokov said. "My dad was everything to me and taught me all of his tricks until 1997 when the Sharks brought me to North America. Then, Warren worked with me first at Kentucky in the American League and Cleveland in the International Hockey League. I think I finally started to turn the corner in Cleveland."
It just so happens that that was a year after he met a young waitress in Kentucky named Tabitha and responsibility and accountability started to creep into his vocabulary.
"My mindset definitely changed in Cleveland," Nabby said. "I had a wife and family on the way and I was becoming more and more comfortable with the language and reacting to situations on the ice on the smaller ice surfaces here in North America.
"At that point, I probably didn’t look anything like the goalie the Sharks management saw on that videotape back in 1997."
So far, Nabokov counts among his biggest moments in hockey his first NHL game, Jan. 1, 2000 against Nashville, playing in the Olympics for Russia in 2006, plus the two championships he won in Russia in 1994 and ‘95.
"There’s still one more biggest moment I’d like to get ... and that ends with everyone on the Sharks getting the chance to raise the Stanley Cup in victory," he said.
-- Larry Wigge