Nail Yakupov returned to the scene of the crime last night.
Back to the city where he made a name for himself en route to being the #1 overall pick in last year’s NHL draft.
Yakupov played two seasons in Sarnia amassing, 80 goals and 170 points in 107 games as a member of the Sting from 2010-2012.
Last night he returned as captain of Team Russia, squaring off in game four of the Subway Super Series against Team OHL.
If Yakupov was worried about the kind of reaction he would receive, he shouldn’t have been.
He was given a rousing ovation during the pre-game introductions, and was even cheered wildly when he scored with 36 seconds left in the game to bring the Russians within one.
The fans got everything they wanted in the end with their former son scoring, yet their hometown OHL squad emerging with a 2-1 victory.
With Yakupov deciding to jump to the KHL and his hometown team Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, instead of returning to Sarnia with the NHL lockout, he was perhaps a little nervous at the reaction he might receive.
“Today, there was a little bit of pressure. It was sold out. They were my fans.”
It was also a great opportunity for Yakupov to say goodbye to to his fans in Sarnia as he took one final lap after the game, applauding the Sarnia fans. Had the NHL been business as usual, he would very likely be in an Oilers uniform and not eligible for the Super Series.
Yaupov’s former teammate, Alex Galchenyuk, the #3 overall pick, did not think there would be any doubt in how he would be received.
“I would have been surprised if they didn’t welcome him back like that after what he did here for two years. It was amazing,” said Alex Galchenyuk, the American-born Russian teammate of Yakupov with the Sting.
“It’s not the same. Obviously his main dream was to play in the NHL. But since he was a kid he lived in Russia and they have a team in his home town he could play for. When there is no NHL, I knew he was not coming back here.”
With the opportunity to play in his hometown in lieu of NHL competition, it was an obviously appealing option for the young Russian superstar. It was also an option endorsed by his parent club, the Edmonton Oilers.
The chance to play against men in the second best professional league in the world would give Yakupov the best chance to further his development, since donning the blue and orange in Oil Country was not an option to start the year.
Yakupov has seen much success in his rookie KHL season with 14 points in his first 13 games.
He is also tied for the scoring lead on his current Russian squad with 4 points in 4 games and will look to take a lead in the Super Series tomorrow night when they enter the final leg with two remaining games against Team WHL.
With splits against the QMJHL and OHL the series is deadlocked going into the final games.
Regardless of whether the CHL or Russia ends up winning the Super Series, Yakupov will be a central figure in how it plays out.