As I write this it’s a couple of hours after Evgeni Nabokov officially ended his 14 year career. Much of that was spent as a Shark, which was the team that drafted him — and in many ways, Nabby (as he was fondly known) defined an era of Sharks hockey.
The history of the Sharks can to some degree be defined around two goaltenders — in the early years, it was Arturs “Like Wall” Irbe who stepped between the pipes and stabilized goaltending for an honestly not very good team for almost 200 games, the team’s first playoffs and a lot of memorable firsts. Irbe is still second on the Sharks in total games played in goal, although Antti Niemi is on pace to pass him later this season.
After Irbe, the Sharks spent a lot of time finding their next “real” goalie, with Mike Vernon and his 111 games over two season coming closest to being fan favorite. Steve Shields (125 games total) played more games during that period but I never felt that the fans ever fell in love with him and he was just inconsistent enough that you couldn’t quite trust that he’d be there in the clutch. In retrospect, I think we as fans didn’t give him as much credit as he deserved.
But the team and the fans were clearly looking for a goalie to fall in love with and along came Evgeni “on second thought, don’t call me John” Nabokov. Drafted sight unseen by the Sharks who were given his name by a contact, his is the kind of storybook backstory that seems made up. Not speaking English he came to North America, struggled, and then started to put it together, married a girl he met while playing for the Sharks minor league team, and finally was brought up to the Sharks.
563 games later Nabby owned just about every Sharks goaltending record — and Sharks fans loved him. A big part of that is that in some ways he’s very much like Arturs Irbe was: He’s an acrobatic goalie and a scrambler, his attitude on the ice was that he would find a way to make a save or win a game, and you could tell he hated giving up goals and losing — and he did it with a smile, a smirk and a wink.
If you ask most Sharks fans to name goalies who played for the team, they’ll all name Nabokov, and probably name Irbe. You’ll probably get Ed Belfour (and then a laugh, probably a hollow one), and because of their high visibility in hockey broadcasting, Kelly Hrudey and Brian Hayward. Most of the others are lost to history and mostly rightly so except to the old farts like me who worry about such things (Jeff Hackett deserves much credit for holding things together as well as he did during those early ugly years, too).
But Sharks hockey can broadly be defined by two eras — the early Arturs Irbe era where he backstopped a team of mostly scrapheap recoveries and helped turn them into a legitimate playoff contending team; and then the era in which Nabokov stepped in and helped make this team a realiably elite team that was going deep into the playoffs and considered a contender through much of his time in teal.
The one thing Nabokov never did was win the Stanley Cup. That ultimately led to the Sharks moving on to Niemi, and to be honest, Laurie and I have argued a lot about whether that made the Sharks better or not. I think that first season, maybe two, it did — a little, but clearly it still wasn’t enough to get over the hump to win that last hockey game. In retrospect, the Sharks probably would have been better off sticking with Nabokov and looking at other places in the roster for improvement (the flip argument, that this weakened the Hawks, is provably false by counting the number of Cup Rings owned by each team in the last few years).
One sad thing is that this era will never ben known as the Nabokov era because it’s also the time the Sharks had Joe Thornton, and Thornton is a definite Hall of Famer once he retires.
Nabokov was always clearly a student of the game. In the press conference he noted he hadn’t considered the next phase and possibly getting into coaching, but I hope at some point he does, and I hope the Sharks give him that opportunity if he wants it. He’s the kind of person that should continue in the game and instill their knowledge and values on the younger players.
The one thing Nabokov didn’t do? Win a Cup. With his numbers, that missing piece will keep him out of the Hall of Fame discussion, I think. He did everything he possibly could to make that happen, though.
Laurie and I sat three rows off the glass on the goal line the Sharks patrol twice for 18 seasons in the Shark Tank, and for one year in the Cow Palace (year one we were up in the bowl), so we’ve seen a lot of Shark goaltending up close and personal. There’s a reason Irbe and Nabokov are so well-remembered, and I think the Sharks did a great and appropriate thing honoring Nabokov this week by bringing him home to retire. Watching the press conference today, I saw what showed up in San Jose as a young, enthusiastic, driven kid has turned into a mature man with a lot more perspective on himself and what he’s accomplished in this phase of his life.
I’m thrilled to see the Sharks recognize him for what he did for the franchise and the fans — and as a fan who spent many nights watching him ply his trade, I wanted to recognize him as well and thank him for making those seats in 127 a place we looked forward to being. Also, we’ll be publishing some of Laurie’s favorite images of Nabby from her collection soon.