He is rightly considered one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL. Drafted in the 9th round of the 1994 draft, he made his first NHL appearance on New Year's Day in 2000, replacing Steve Shields in a game against the Nashville Predators. A little over two weeks later, Nabokov started his first NHL game against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. At the start of the game the goaltending stats in the 'win' column read "Roy 427, Nabokov 0." But Nabokov stopped all 29 shots to earn the Sharks a draw.
He continued to perform very well for the Sharks and won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2001, becoming the first and the only non-North American born goaltender to achieve this honor. Nabokov felt that he deserved to be paid accordingly, and at the beginning of the 2002-2003 season he decided to hold out. It took the Sharks management only five games to realize that they had to re-sign Evgeni.
We decided to catch up with Evgeni to chat about the reasons the Sharks will not be chokers this postseason; what he thought of Alex Ovechkin's 'hot stick' celebration; worst rule in the NHL; the best goalie in the league; ping-pong and much more.
Q. The playoffs are almost here, so let's hit the obvious question: Tell us why the San Jose Sharks will not be "chokers" in the playoffs this year?
NABOKOV: Well, I actually don't want to guess the future, because in the playoffs every game means something. It is just very difficult to predict any results. That's why I, just like any other athlete, do not want to make predictions.
Does the team have a new system in place to achieve this?
I think when the new coach came on board, as well as the two most notable additions in Rob Blake and Danny Boyle who added some much valuable experience to our team as well as leadership and confidence, they help us out a lot on power play. Rob has a great shot. And Danny is an excellent skater and puck handler. These two players are the difference in a lot of components of our team play.
Does carrying that weight of past failures, as a franchise, add additional pressure when the playoffs start?
Without a doubt. I think that the playoffs always equal pressure. There is pressure in any professional sport. There is no such thing as "lack of pressure." You always want to win. It's just the nature of the sport. It is normal. I think every player is used to it now. We have this adrenaline pumping through our bodies. We are just used to it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being "not at all" and 10 being "with every part of my body," how much do you hate the Detroit Red Wings?
I don't think there is a team that likes Detroit. That's why I wouldn't want to use a scale. Without a doubt, they are a very difficult opponent to play against. Such a franchise as Detroit has always been at the very top, and that's why there are no easy games against them.
Who do you think the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference is this season and why?
I think that as long as Marty Brodeur is in goal for the New Jersey Devils, I will always think of that team as the most dangerous from the Eastern Conference. Although there are teams that cannot go unnoticed like the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals. But still, my answer is the Devils. Marty Brodeur is the difference.
As of this interview, you're only about 55 shutouts away from Brodeur...
[Laughing really hard] Only?!
When do you expect to catch him?
Yeah, I think this will take a really long time. As I have said, he is one of the best ever, that's why he sets all these records. I think he will soon break Terry Sawchuk's all time record for career shut-outs. He has already beat Patrick Roy's all time wins record. It's just too difficult.
The Man Between the Pipes
For the fans that aren't aware of it, describe the typical routine for you on a game day.
A routine game day? I wake up, I have my breakfast. Then I travel to the morning skate. I have my warm-up, sometimes a hot tub before the skate to warm up. Then we practice and go to have lunch with the guys afterwards. Then there is a mandatory one hour sleep, a late afternoon snack. And then off to the fight!
I won't ask if you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions, because you're a goalie so of course you do. So what are they? Maybe you put on your left skate first?
I don't know what you call it: a ritual or a routine. But there is a pattern that you always follow. And I have mine. But trust me, I will not give you that answer! [Laughing]
This is a top secret?
Not really, but I don't want to be jinxed!
Who is the best goalie in the world right now?
Once again, in my opinion, there is no better goaltender in the world right now than Marty Brodeur.
Is it true you tried to change your name to John when you came to North America?
No, it is not true. I have never tried to change my name. I always had my birth name. There was a nickname though. I don't know if it was a tradition or what. But I was nicknamed 'John.' But then it was all changed very quickly. But yes, at one time John was my nickname.
Why not go with something more memorable, like Killer or Jean-Sebastien?
You won the starting goalie job for the Sharks having competed against Miikka Kiprusoff. What's the rivalry between you two like today, considering the history between the Sharks and Flames and the fact that Kiprusoff seems to get more attention than you do?
There are always rivalries. For me, it is not just with Kiprusoff, but with every goaltender in the league simply because I play for my club and they all play for the other clubs. That's why rivalries are certainty and you cannot hide from them. This is hockey.
The Sharks' record without you starting is much poorer than when you play. That's MVP material. So why aren't you talked about more for the MVP?
Maybe because I don't want to speak to the media more often? [Laughing] But to be serious, I just don't know. I cannot answer this question. I just try to do my job on the ice. And whatever happens off the ice doesn't depend on me. I don't know.
Your name also doesn't seem to come up as much as players like Roberto Luongo, Steve Mason and Tim Thomas when it comes to the Vezina Trophy. What kind of bias is there against you in the media and the hockey world?
Once again, I just don't know. I do try not to focus my attention on it. For me, the most important thing is to have the respect of the guys on my team and of our organization. And all the rest is just secondary.
Everybody pays such attention to goals and points for offensive players; do goalie stats really tell us anything about how a goalie is actually playing or are they too vague?
I think it is very individual when it comes to goaltenders. For me the most important stat is wins. Save percentage is close second. In my opinion, these two stats are the most important for a goaltender. Trust me, these stats are only ever compared to other goaltenders. It is very different from player stats. How should I say it? It is just less visible.
What is your least favorite NHL rule?
I don't like that they made the trapezoids behind the net. It got very difficult to play with a stick. Not difficult, but you play with a stick less now.
Do you think that with the restrictions on equipment, on where you can play the puck and other changes that the NHL is being unfair to goaltenders?
You know, to be honest, my opinion regarding the equipment is that it needs to be regulated because there are a lot of goalies who play with large equipment. That's why this needs to be regulated and some kind of rules need to be put in place. And this trapezoid zone needs to be eliminated, because there are goaltenders who play great with their stick. Why would you remove this advantage from them? [This skill] is also an advantage for their team. That's why they should go back to the way it was.
You have about 92 career penalty minutes. Do you consider yourself a physical goalie?
Yes, I am a physical goalie. I want to fight every game! [Laughing] You know, it just happens sometimes that you hit someone, or you throw the puck away [and get a penalty]. It is just a part of the game?
Yeah, right... He is... You know in America this is called ‘a crybaby' and he is exactly that.
Swimming With the Sharks
What do you remember from your glove save on Brad Richards in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs? Do you ever check out your highlights on the Internet? Because that save has 243,000 views on YouTube.
I watch something on YouTube only when someone emails me a link to something interesting there. Otherwise, I don't really watch anything online. I always watch the games I play right after the match is over. I usually do it either with the goaltenders' coach or alone, so I see absolutely everything without resorting to the Internet anyway.
Who are you closest with on the Sharks, and what do you typically do with your teammates on road trips?
Road trips? We usually go out to eat with guys as soon as we arrive somewhere. We pick a restaurant: someone likes Japanese, someone likes Italian or a Steakhouse. So, most of the times you go out with a different company of guys. But there is a very good relationship with everyone on the team, and you try not to pick 'I am going only with this guy,' or 'I am only going with another guy.' This is because we are all one team. We all try to stick together.
Honestly: What did you think when you heard the Sharks were bringing back Claude Lemieux?
To be honest I didn't think much about that. Claude is a very experienced guy. But he hadn't played for a very long time and, to be honest, I didn't know what to expect.
[Laughing] Hmm... You know, when JR came to our team, everyone was very skeptical. But when I got to know him better, let me tell you he is an unbelievably great person. He just exhales energy. He is very outspoken, he is very easy to talk to. Once our coach even called him the Energizer Bunny. He is full of energy. He is also a very kind person and always tries to help other younger guys. He always used to invite guys to his house for dinner. He is an awesome guy! And I can say exactly the same about Joe.
Joe is such a team player, that I think he is willing to spend more time with the guys than in his own family. You know how they say that the team is your second home? I think for Joe it is the first home. Both of these guys are great to have on the team.
Do you like the San Jose Sharks uniforms and colors? What about the new black jersey?
They are all great! I think we have the most unique uniforms in the entire league. I do like the black color jerseys, but I prefer the teal color ones.
Russian Stars and the Olympic Controversy
How disappointed will you be if the NHL decided not to participate in the 2014 Sochi games? What do you think the reaction from Russian players will be if they aren't allowed to play in the Olympics that year?
Without a doubt I would be disappointed! I don't know what the reaction from other players would be. But I personally think that NHL players should participate in the Olympics, and this has been talked about a lot.
Guys want to play. I don't know whether we decide this or someone else, but the votes show that we want to play in the Olympics. But team owners have their own questions regarding this matter, and I think they have their own points about it. I would like to believe that somehow they will resolve this issue.
When they were all in their prime? Fedorov. Mogilny. Ovechkin. Bure.
Did you happen to see Ovechkin's goal celebration for his 50th goal? What would you do if something similar was happening behind your net?
“Yes, I did see it. [With a smile] I personally didn’t like it. I would just catch a puck, give it or show it to him…
I just think it was a little bit too much, especially for a player like him. It was just a little disrespectful to others. But Alex doesn't care about all these opinions, and I understand him. He loves it, fans love it. So, why not? We are here to entertain fans. Some like it, some don't. But it is a personal opinion. That's why I gave my personal opinion because I was asked. I don't think there is anything wrong with that.
To be honest, Datsyuk would be my No. 1. So it would be Datsyuk, Malkin, Ovechkin, Crosby.
Being Evgeni Nabokov
Let's talk about you personally now: What is your favorite bit of American junk food to splurge on?
I don't have a favorite American food. I love Italian cuisine very much. I like sushi. And I also like steak. I also love Russian pelmeni and Russian borscht. [Laughing] This is what I eat most often. And when my mom comes over she always cooks these dishes. I eat mom's food.
Your beer or adult beverage of choice, sir?
I like beer, wine, I like cognac. I just always try to be reasonable. [Laughing]
What do you typically do on your off-day from games?
Whenever I get some free time I try to spend it with my family, to be honest. This is because during the season you don't see your kids very often, but they grew up a lot now. And when they don't see you often enough, you just want to spend as much time as possible with them. It is a little different in the summer, when I can go and play golf with the guys sometimes, although I am not a very good golfer. Sometimes I play tennis. But I really like to spend my time by the pool.
I have heard that you have actually won a ping-pong tournament.
Yes! This is another game that I absolutely love! When I was growing up I used to play ping-pong all the time. But then there was just not enough time. Now we even have a ping-pong table and play with the guys from the team.
Who is the best? Or do you always beat everybody?
No, actually there are some guys who can play really well. Marcel Goc can play, JR [Roenick], Danny Boyle can play really well.
The last terrible movie you've seen is ...?
I really have trouble remembering movie titles. Overall, I really don't like moves about war.
Is there anyone famous, male or female, you'd love to have a drink with to discuss life?
What's on your iPod these days?
There is a lot of different music. I play different songs depending on my mood. Sometimes it's Bryan Adams, Tatu, Russian or American rap sometimes. It just depends on my mood.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about hockey?
I love it when fans really get into it and start really supporting the team. You just get this rush from it. There is the feeling of extra adrenaline. You just get this enjoyment that you are playing for someone.
*Special thanks to Mikhail Bykov, Sovetsky Sport's San Jose reporter, for help with the interview.