Yevgeny Nabokov, athlete

Yevgeny Nabokov hails from Russia’s famous Nabokov dynasty. The hockey dynasty, that is. Yevgeny’s father, Viktor, didn’t write Lolita, but tended goalie for Torpedo, in Ust-Kamenogorsk (in Eastern Kazakstan), for 18 years.

Nabokov senior played alongside the famous center-forward Boris Alexandrov, who later moved to the star-studded Central Red Army Club team, which raised havoc with NHL defenders during CSKA’s 1976 North American tour. But Viktor Nabokov remained loyal to Torpedo, earning him great respect in Ust-Kamenogorsk. “The whole city still respects dad!” son Yevgeny said. “When I was growing up, I had no greater dream than to receive the same respect as my father!”

When Nabokov’s father retired from the ice in 1987, he opened a school for goalies in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Quite naturally, Yevgeny became one of his first pupils, despite his mother’s objections. “No, I didn’t want Zhenya to be a goalie,” Nabokov’s mother,  Tatyana said. “I took pity on him and sometimes implored him: ‘Son, please, how about being a forward or a defender?’ But he only replied: ‘I will be a goalie!’”

What mother, after all, wants to see pucks flying at her son like speeding bullets. His father supported the idea, but made a point of warning Yevgeny of the hardships he would face. “But,” Viktor said, “Zhenya was adamant. I soon realized he was born to be a goaltender.”

Yevgeny showed uncommon discipline and a strong will. He would rise at 6 AM without complaint, because by doing so he could get extra one-on-one practice time with his dad before the main practice session.

Surprisingly, after graduating from hockey school, Yevgeny didn’t play long for the Ust-Kamenogorsk squad. His coach at Torpedo played him against visiting Dinamo (Moscow), and the visiting coach, Vitaly Davydov, was so impressed, he invited Nabokov to Moscow to play for him. So, in 1994, at age 17, Nabokov moved to the Russian capital.

The same year, Nabokov was picked in the 9th round of the NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks. But America was too far away. Nabokov felt that he needed to prove himself at Dinamo. This he did, fast becoming a favorite of Dinamo fans, especially after he was picked as Best Goalie in the EuroLeague in 1997, the year Dinamo reached the finals. The result was a much better contract offer from the Sharks.

It took Nabokov three seasons to prove himself in the NHL, as competition among goalies is very tough. Nabokov had to put in his time and wait for an opening, which arrived when the Sharks traded one of their goalies. Nabokov quickly rose to the occasion. In his first match, against the Colorado Avalanche, he made 39 saves versus 15 made by his counterpart on the Avalanche. The match ended in a 0:0 draw, leading his father to wonder “whether they were playing hockey or soccer.”

That match earned Nabokov kudos from Sharks Coach Darrel Sutter. And when the team’s first string goalie, Steve Shields, was injured, Nabokov finally took his place at the head of the line. He went on to goaltend 11 straight wins, quickly establishing himself as the frontrunner, and then winner of, the prestigious Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. He was the sixth goalie to take the honor since 1967, and went on to play for the World Team at the NHL All-Star Game, plus was named the Sharks’ Player of the Year.

This would seem to assure Nabokov a position on a Russian “Dream Team” at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. And legendary Russian goalie Vladislav Tretyak has repeatedly said that Nabokov could play a decisive role for the Russian team.

Unfortunately, however, while in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Nabokov played for the Kazak juniors team which, under international sports rules, means he cannot play for the Russian Olympic team, even though he is a Russian citizen. It will thus be up to Russian officials to see if they can successfully get Nabokov onto the Russian team. But whether they do or not, Yevgeny Nabokov has already achieved his major lifetime goal—all of Russian hockey fans already respect this talented young goalie the way fans in Ust-Kamenogorsk still revere his father.

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