SAN JOSE -- Evgeni Nabokov got a chance to see some of his former Sharks teammates when San Jose visited what was then his current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in mid-November.
At that point, the 39-year-old goaltender said he felt he could play another five years.
Nabokov struggled with the Lightning, though, who eventually placed him on waivers on Feb. 1. He went unclaimed, and at that point the next step was inevitable.
“I started playing less, and I felt like I’m not enjoying it as much, because you practice but you don’t know when you’re going to play or how you’re going to play,” Nabokov said on Wednesday, as he officially announced his retirement from hockey. “You don’t really feel like you can impact the team that you wanted to. I came home and I said, ‘No point. It’s time, for sure.’
"I don’t know if it’s physically the time or mentally the time. It’s just time.”
At that point, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Sharks GM Doug Wilson collaborated to bring Nabokov back to the place in which he made a name for himself.
Nabokov had a feeling that the trade for “future considerations” on Monday was coming, and he expressed his gratitude to Wilson and the Sharks organization for allowing him to return home to officially hang up his glove and waffle board.
“Obviously, I was very thrilled and very excited. At first I thought maybe he could play me, but then I’m like, OK, reality check,” Nabokov joked. “It’s all Doug and the Sharks organization. It’s a first class organization. They prove it.”
Nabokov is simply the best goaltender in Sharks franchise history. The Kazakhstan native is the team’s all-time leader in games played (563), wins (293) and shutouts (50), captured the 2001 Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year, and was a Vezina Trophy finalist as the league’s best goalie in 2008.
Nabokov was drafted in the ninth round, 219th overall of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft before making his way to North America in 1997. He spent most of his first three seasons playing for the Sharks’ minor league affiliates in Kentucky and Cleveland.
One of the main reasons he decided to stay with the Sharks rather than return to Russia was Warren Strelow. Both Nabokov and Wilson became emotional when mentioning the legendary goalie coach who passed away in 2007.
“Anybody that knew Warren, and knew the caring and acceptance that Nabby had to trust him with everything is one of those things you had to see to believe,” Wilson said.
Nabokov also fought back tears when mentioning his teammates, several of which were in attendance at the press conference. Current Sharks Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, as well as former Sharks Owen Nolan, Mike Rathje, Curtis Brown, Mike Ricci and Dave Maley were all there on the club level at SAP Center.
“My teammates, without them I would not achieve anything,” Nabokov said. “It’s a team sport, and if I would not have [had] such great teammates, I would not be even close to where I am right now.”
Nabokov also touched on the Sharks’ fan base, which packed the arena on a nightly basis while the team was consistently dominating the regular season. And, yes, he heard those “Nabby, Nabby” chants.
“The fans are just unbelievable,” he said. “Every time you make a save and every time the team scores, the way they would chant my name was unreal. It made me feel so good every time they’d cheer my name.
“Sometimes you’re tired and not really sure if you have it tonight, and then you hear the fans and you’re like ‘I have no other choice other than be ready and play well.’”
Nabokov maintained a residence in the Bay Area even after he was not re-signed following the 2009-10 season. He’s unsure of his immediate plans now that he’s no longer an NHL player, other than he’ll be at every one of his son Andre’s hockey games and daughter Emma’s dance recitals.
Considering he’s so close, perhaps there is a role awaiting him Nabokov with the Sharks organization at some point. He was asked if that’s something he’s considered.
“Hockey is all I know,” Nabokov said. “Probably I would really look at the opportunity, that’s for sure.”
Nabokov ends his 14-year NHL career with 353 wins with the Sharks, Islanders and Lightning, ranking him 18th on the all-time wins list. He’s 17th all-time with 59 shutouts and 25th in games played with 697. He helped lead the Sharks to two of their three appearances in the Western Conference Finals in 2004 and 2010.