Home > Culture, Edmonton Oilers, Sports > Nail Yakupov: Joyful Rebellion and the Repressed Hockey Culture

Nail Yakupov: Joyful Rebellion and the Repressed Hockey Culture

The lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season is but a week in, and the Edmonton Oilers play only their fourth game of that season against their arch-rivals the Calgary Flames tonight. But already the Oilers’ roster of galactic young talents (which still has considerable holes, of course) is making hockey headlines. They overcame perennial Northwest Division winners the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout in the season opener and allowed 6 first-period goals to be run out of their own building to in their second game. This was followed by a home date this past Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings.

After a game full of head-scratching penalties and generally highly-questionable officiating, the Oilers had a late game-tying goal mysteriously waved off, and looked like they would fall to the champs by 1-0 scoreline. But then, with goaltender Devan Dubnyk on the bench for the extra attacker and in the midst of a furious assault for the equalizer, the Oilers’ latest high-touted #1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov batted a rebound out of mid-air and past Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to send the game to OT with 4.7 seconds remaining. A Sam Gagner tally in the extra frame would give the Oil the full share of points, but Yakupov’s dramatic goal (only the second of his NHL career) was the story, particularly due to how he celebrated it.

Soaking in the (quite literal) spotlight, the enthusiastic personality of Yakupov came out in a memorable, even iconic, way. The moment was something a step beyond being the key turning point in an early regular-season match-up against a league power for a youthful, raw club that hopes to turn a long run of futility into success for a hockey-mad community. Winning is great and all, but winning with style, winning and being cool, is a rarer thing, especially in the square world of pro hockey. Generally, as it is in most big-time sports, success in hockey is predicated on calculated, even ruthless, efficiency in the procurement of talent and application of strategic frameworks. The Detroit Red Wings have done a lot of winning over the last few decades, after all. So have the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers. But are any of those teams, in whatever meaning we choose for the word, “cool”?

This was cool. Nail Yakupov, with his wacky Twitter and his giddy approach to the game and, yes, his passionate goal celebrations, is cool. He’s now surrounded in Edmonton by more personally-staid young stars who can accomplish similarly remarkable things on the ice: Taylor Hall, a constant potential offensive explosion; Jordan Eberle, a skilled sniper with the dextrous hands of a sculptor; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slight, consistently surprising wizard of a passer; Justin Schultz, who may not be Paul Coffey but may fill the role of blueline facilitator for this exhilirating forward core for some time to come. They may be young and a little brash (Yakupov’s slide was certainly that), but that’s a huge part of the appeal.

This is how Yakupov celebrated his first NHL goal. This kid is great.

The hope, for me, is that this group of players doesn’t only win, they win with a style and panache that the NHL game has not really seen in full measure since that legendary Gretzky-helmed Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Hockey at the top level has changed too much in the interim to allow for the same sort of offensive flair to dominate the league; defensive systems and technical goaltending has pushed the onus for success from the forward zones to behind the blueline, where the Oilers are still not reliable enough to compete for a title. Indeed, like Yakupov’s spur-of-the-moment ice-sliding freak-out, the Oilers are spontaneous, unplanned (I don’t give GM Steve Tambellini too much credit for “building” through losing), and maybe a bit too naively delighted with their small successes to achieve larger ones.

But there can be glory and immortality in not quite taking the top prize, but approaching it while playing with aesthetic appeal and entertaining swagger. I hold out some hope that this young Oilers core can do for pro hockey culture what the Fab Five did for the basketball world, introducing a new edge and a less repressed attitude to the game and the impressions that surround it. Yakupov’s attention-snatching celebration runs counter to the conservative, proper behaviour that dominates the hockey culture and turns individuals with non-deferential attitudes into pariahs or “locker-room cancers”. The fact that these figures tend to be skilled Europeans (especially Russians like Yakupov or Alexander Ovechkin) or non-white North Americans (like goalie Ray Emery or current Montreal Canadiens hold-out P.K. Subban, who a TSN analyst once described, with a telling Freudian slip, as not playing or acting “the white way”) speaks also to a xenophobic (white supremacist, even) culture of heteronormativity in hockey culture that mistrusts difference and works with determination to marginalize and eradicate any hint of it.

The fact that something as seemingly innocuous as a rookie enthusiastically celebrating an important goal early in his pro career can challenge the established hockey order speaks to its rigidity. Greg Wyshynski’s piece on Yakupov’s celebration at Puck Daddy is one of the better reaction pieces I’ve come across, fully appreciating the NHL’s structure of “staid decorum” and holding up the spontaneous act as a joyful rebellion against the uptight dominant culture of the game (he also includes some ignorant jibes at soccer’s superior flair, which fails to acknowledge that sport’s theatrical celebrations as expressions of the released mass tension that such a low-scoring game encourages).

And yet Wyshynski’s closing sentence, which darkly hints at what can only be considered gangland-style violent retribution for Yakupov’s celebration when the Kings next meet the Oilers, demonstrates that the culture has a long way to go before style, flair, and “cool” are properly embraced as necessary components of hockey’s mass appeal rather than aberrations in behaviour that compel punishment. If moments like the one Nail Yakupov provided the other night can open wider cracks in this stiff facade, they might prove even more memorable, in the long run.

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