If you are tuned into the New York sports scene at all these days you may have noticed a brash, former goaltender on the airwaves.
The other night I went to a Long Island bar on a wintery Long Island night. The place wasn't that packed but also wasn't empty. Some DJ with a DJ name was forcing loud music out of the speakers. Over a dozen TVs were on with different sports stuff playing. A few were on MSG after the Devils-Penguins game. Some were on some NBA game. Others on ESPN. And two of them, including the one planted right in my face, was on SNY.
As I looked up from a sip, I saw the familiar face of that same ex-goalie sitting in a chair on the set of some sports-talk show.
Then after watching the Devils game for the second time that night, MSG aired 4 Courses with JB Smoove. I had never seen a minute of this show, but I'd seen hours of commercials for it during hockey games. The camera panned over from JB. That same goalie was sitting at JB's table wearing the type of attention-begging outfit you just knew Rick DiPietro would wear to a televised dinner with JB Smoove.
DiPietro has been all over the NY Sports scene the past four months as he, and his networks, prep him for his transition from one of sports' worst contracts to sports talk guy.
This week, another former Islander goalie, this one of a more humble variety, will join DiPietro in that transition.
A Tale of Endurance
The Tampa Bay Lightning placed Evgeni Nabokov on waivers last week to make room for young Russian netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Nabokov, a 39-year-old Kazakhstani-Russian, has struggled to keep up in his later years, and a trade was arranged to return him to San Jose for a retirement announcement Wednesday with his original team.
Nabokov's career numbers tell a story of endurance. He played in 697 games and recorded 338 career victories. In 2007-08, Nabokov played in 77 games for San Jose, winning 46.
Nabby's reputation was akin to that of one of those workhorse pitchers in Major League Baseball.
Despite his long career, many Islander fans will just think of him as the guy who let them down in the 2013 playoffs. A lot of people forget that Nabokov was very reliable for the Isles in the final stages of that season. The Islanders were 12th in the conference on March 22 in 2013, needing to play near perfect hockey to have a chance of making the playoffs. From there they collected points in 14 of the last 15 games, as Nabokov went 10-1-3 during that stretch.
Nabokov's playoff performance was bad, but I'm confident in saying that without Nabby's steady play during the final leg of the season they would've never ended their playoff drought.
Off the ice, Nabby's reputation was that of a whimsically wise leader. He was constantly hailed by teammates as a calming, almost jovial influence.
Sports don't have room for players like Evgeni Nabokov anymore, which is a hard truth sometimes.
Another man who will miss "The Professor" is "The Maven" Stan Fischler.
I had the honor of working for Stan during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. The first game I covered was on January 21, 2013. The Lightning were in town. Players started to arrive and I actually bumped into Anders Lindback on the escalator going down to ice level. He was lost so I walked him to the locker room.
"Who is in goal tonight?" he asked me.
"Nabokov," I replied trying to keep my cool..I mean I was talking to ANDERS F'n LINDBACK!
"I was hoping so, I like his style. He is a throwback," Lindback said (And so did Dom).
A Throwback Goalie and a Throwback Announcer
Before the Islanders acquired him, I always thought of Nabokov as the guy who played goalie for all those San Jose outfits that starred in the regular season before fading away in the final act. I never really paid much attention to him other than catching him a few times during the playoffs or on OLN. I found some humor in the randomness of having Nabokov as an Islander.
Like his good friend Evgeni, Stan Fischler is also a throwback. They both have styles that were developed in an NHL of yesteryear, pre-excel sheets and the like. Perhaps that is why the two of them hit it off so well.
I had a front row seat to "The Stan & Nabby Show" and it was so clear to me that these two were made to be in the same locker room. Watching Stan tightrope along "the fourth wall" of hockey media and develop a genuine friendship with a player on his beat was something I'll never forget. Every notepad would circle the two of them after games. The give-and-take that ensued was so rare in today's rigid media-player relation. In fact, I can't say I've ever seen anything like that.
I think that is why I found it so easy to love Evgeni Nabokov. He kept chugging with grace, keeping pace with the game for so long and did it with a smile on his face and an adorably quasi-english version of a sports cliche on his lips.
If one spends some time (I have) and thinks about it, it is only fitting that DiPietro was eventually succeeded by Nabokov. Both were rookies in 2000-01 (although Nabby debuted the year before) and despite the fanfare that accompanied DiPietro's rookie season, it was Nabokov who won The Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
These two men played the same crazy position in the same crazy sport yet couldn't be less alike. DiPietro's tragically short career was built on attitude and athleticism before being derailed by cursed durability. Nabokov's long career was built on sage and reliability, and was sustained through impressive durability.
In front of the cameras they were also different. DiPietro loved to stir things up in the press with choice quotes that he knew would draw eyeballs. Nabokov loved to mix things up with the press with quirky quotes that flew under the radar.
DiPietro will go down in the books as an Islander. Nabokov will be remembered as a San Jose Shark.
When I was talking with Stan during an intermission of the Islanders loss to Florida, he lamented, "I'm really going to miss him."
Stan Fischler has been covering hockey in these parts for almost 60 years. He has been around the Islanders for their entire existence. It speaks volumes of the character of Evgeni Nabokov when you consider the type of lasting impression he left, in just two years, on a man who may know the Islanders as well as anybody on the planet.