By Paul Krotz / Canadian Hockey League
Excitement for the SUBWAY Super Series reached new heights across the Canadian Hockey League when Nail Yakupov was named to the Team Russia roster, but one game in particular was instantly highlighted a bit brighter than the others.
Game 4 of the SUBWAY Super Series will be played Monday night in Sarnia, home of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sting, the organization where Yakupov played two seasons before becoming the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
“Monday will be crazy I think,” Yakupov said after Team Russia practice on Sunday morning. “It’s good to be back, this is a great team with great fans. I am excited for the game.”
The Russians arrived in Sarnia on Saturday afternoon and looked right at home immediately. Yakupov, who is also the team’s captain, could be seen showing his teammates around the rink and barking directions to the weight room in Russian. He happily greeted members of the Sting including former teammate Alex Galchenyuk and his father Alex Sr., then signed autographs and posed for pictures with the many fans in attendance that came to watch practice.
"Nail will go down certainly as one of the greatest players to ever play for our organization,” said Sting Assistant General Manager Mark Glavin. “He was an instant fan favourite both for his style of play and for his enthusiasm for the game.”
Yakupov certainly made his mark in Sarnia. The CHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2011, Yakupov recorded 170 points in 107 OHL games over two seasons including 49 goals and 101 points as a rookie setting a new club record held previously by Steven Stamkos in 2007. Yakupov also became the sixth straight CHL player to be selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft following Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Stamkos, and Patrick Kane.
“This is a unique opportunity for our fans to thank Nail for everything he brought to this organization and to this city,” added Glavin. “When Steven Stamkos was drafted first overall he played in the NHL as an 18-year-old and our fans did not have that chance to thank him and congratulate him. With Nail they now get that chance on Monday night.”
Through three games of the SUBWAY Super Series, Yakupov is tied for the club lead with three points. More importantly to him, the Russians lead the series six points to three after winning against the OHL for the first time in the history of this event.
The SUBWAY Super Series is about evaluating talent for the World Junior Championship, not just for Canadian players but for the Russian National Junior team who earned silver last year in Calgary following a gold medal win in Buffalo two years ago. The spotlight will be on them this year as tournament hosts in Ufa, and Yakupov will certainly be counted on to lead the charge.
“I think it will be great,” he said when speaking about the upcoming World Juniors. “Its’ a bit easier when you play at home with your fans, I know the rink and I know the fans will be pretty good.”
Before getting too caught up in World Junior excitement, Yakupov is focused on giving Sting fans one final curtain call.
“Every game I played in Sarnia was special, I’m happy to play here one last time. I can’t wait for the game.”