About the League
Raul Yakupov treads in his brother Nail’s footsteps.
Forward Raul Yakupov will remember the 2021/2022 season for his entire life. He was one of the leaders of Reaktor and made his KHL debut for Neftekhimik. Even though Raul appeared in only two games, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Yakupov played 54 regular season games in the JHL, scored 30 goals and was credited with 15 assists. 45 points, the title of the top scorer and the top goalscorer of the Nizhnekamsk team, and all this at the age of 17.
In mid-May, Raul was called up to the Russian national team to prepare for the Black Sea Cup, which only confirms the player’s progress. In an interview with the official JHL website, Yakupov talked about practicing with the national team and communication with his brother Nail – a forward of Avangard, recalled his KHL debut and revealed the secret of practicing with a shooting pad together with his father.
– Were you surprised to be called up to the national team to prepare for the Black Sea Cup?
– To be honest, I was looking forward to get a U18 World Championship call-up. But under present circumstances, we should be happy with what we have. The Black Sea Cup was usually held in the summer. I was slightly surprised that the camp started at the end of May.
– Was it very upsetting to miss the U18WC?
– Yes, but there's nothing you can do. We need to continue playing and developing in order to be successful at the senior level. Everything is ahead of me. The training camp showed what the players carry in their hearts and how they prepare. I don’t even think about missing the U18WC anymore.
– Did you have time to get rested before being called up to the national team?
– Reaktor finished training at the end of April. I had four or five days of rest and started preparing for the national team. You cannot join the national team untrained. After all, I am to represent not only myself, but also the club and the city. I took the preparation process very seriously.
– Everybody is resting in May, and you are practicing. Aren’t you tired of hockey?
– I’m not. That’s what we do, our life-work that we enjoy. I live and breathe hockey: I watch the playoffs of different leagues – highlights, goals, hits. I am gathering information little by little. Some things stick in my mind and I try them on ice later. I don’t feel tired yet. Maybe when I’m around 40, I will. Now I only think about hockey.
– What does being called up to the national team mean to you?
– First of all, responsibility. You have to demonstrate your level of play. Like I said, I am to represent Neftekhimik and Nizhnekamsk. I hope everything will be settled in the nearest future, and our team will be able to participate in international tournaments again.
– What does the training process of the national team look like?
– We are working on the ice and in the gym, watching videos. We were working out with weights and resistance bands. All the exercises are well-planned and effective. We are being careful and everything is aimed at development. Each practice has a specific focus - we work on powerplay, analyze videos. All conditions for training have been created. We live in comfort, we were given out nice uniform. Nothing to complain about. No junk food or soda. Condensed milk is the only unhealthy food available for the national team, I regret to say.
– Shouldn’t you be happy to say it?
– Tastes differ. Sometimes you want something sweet to eat, but we all need to eat healthy. I have to stint myself in some food, but I tell myself that I don’t need it and it’s not good for my health. Most of the time, it helps. But sometimes I can go soft and eat a chocolate bar or some junk food.
– You were called up together with your teammate Islam Gainullin. Does it help to blend into the team quicker?
– I already knew most of the players. It was Islam’s first call-up, so I gave him a few pointers on what I thought was important: what was located where, who to contact, who to ask for something. Although we represent different clubs, we quickly found common language. Now we communicate as if we have played the whole season for the same team. All the guys are friendly and helpful.
– Did you quickly adjust to head coach Vladimir Filatov’s requirements?
– Yes. It’s not my first experience with the current coaching staff. There are many coaches in the national team: one is responsible for powerplay, the other - for penalty killing. Everyone gives one hundred percent. They are real professionals. They know how to strike the right note with each player. All their pieces of advice add to sum total of our experience.
– With such a long season, will you have time to get rested before the start of the next one?
– Absolutely. You can always find an opportunity to have rest. Moreover, if you rest too much in summer, it breeds rust. Active rest is way better: soccer, basketball, volleyball. You can’t allow yourself to get out of shape during vacation.
– Do you ever stop thinking about hockey?
– I spend two or three weeks without skating and get back to training. But I never forget about hockey. I watch YouTube videos, work on stickhandling using a shooting pad.
– A shooting pad at the rink or at your place?
– At our summer house and at the rink. I have been practicing with a shooting pad at our summer house since childhood. It is ten years old now. The number of pucks my father brought to our summer house can hardly be exceeded by any other person on the planet. Being a child, I was practicing shooting and my dad was picking up pucks during my rest periods. Then he would give them back to me and I would start over again. We could do this all day. The way my family supports me is the key to my hockey success. My dad, uncle and brother trained me ever since I was little. Mom cooked some delicious food that made me hit the ice being full of strength and energy. But it was my father who invested the most into me.
– What components did you plan to focus on during the offseason?
–Every hockey player relies on his strengths, his “it”. For example, Alexander Ovechkin takes great shots, Connor McDavid travels at great speeds. But you need to work on all the aspects. The weaknesses must be fixed, and the strengths must be enhanced in order for you to become even a better player.
– And what are your weaknesses?
– Sometimes they speak about my defensive skills. There is always room for improvement. You need to work on yourself each and every year to improve your conditioning, to compete with senior players as an equal, keep up with their speed and not lose battles.
– This season you made your KHL debut for Neftekhimik. You played only 27 seconds against Jokerit. What did you feel at that moment?
– To be honest, I didn’t have enough time to really feel anything. Our win was already guaranteed. I hit the ice, shut off my emotions and went on autopilot simply enjoying the moment.
– Did you start feeling shaky when the coach told you the next shift was yours?
– No. I was given a good opportunity to play during the tournament in Magnitogorsk. I had an understanding of what it would be like and what I was getting myself into.
– Did the reality meet your expectations?
– It's impossible to tell. You look at your idol and every year you get a better understanding of how hard it is to become like him, or even better. I didn’t think the speed of a game was that fast. It was tough, but exciting, I think I did well. Playing against Salavat Yulaev I forced the opponent to break the rules and we converted that powerplay. I did my best to make the most out of that moment.
– And who is your idol?
– I don’t actually have an idol. I’ve been looking up to my brother Nail since childhood. He sets a good example of how to act in certain moments. It helps me a lot.
– Did Neftekhimik somehow celebrate your debut?
– The guys from the team gave me a few tips, told me not to worry, to warm up properly and pick up speed on my first shift. There was nothing special. When I become a senior player, I will definitely think of something for young players to remember this moment.
– A 27-second shift is hardly enough time to pick up speed.
– You've got to appreciate what you have. If there’s one shift for you to play – do it with all your strength. If you get two shifts to play - so be it. It comes with the job.
– What impression did head coach Oleg Leontyev make on you?
– Only positive. The team always started games from the position of strength – whether against SKA and against Ak Bars. We were always told that we were better, stronger, faster. We never lacked motivation. We always focused on the positive things, played, analyzed videos. We worked hard off ice. I was given the opportunity to prove myself during training camp: I played against Kunlun, Amur and Ak Bars. I am grateful to the coach for this.
– Was there a moment during KHL games when you felt the real level of senior hockey?
– I remember one moment when I played seven shifts in the game against Salavat Yulaev. I always try to play aggressive hockey, to force opponents to break the rules, to instigate, but without playing dirty - only by means of sports aggression. So, here’s what happened: I was in the slot area and there was some pushing with one of the defensemen. I think it was Dinar Khafizullin. He pushed me really hard on the ice and then I realized what I got myself into. I’m not a small-sized player, but he did it as if I was knee-high to a mosquito. However, he took a penalty, and we converted that powerplay. I got praised for that.
– In the 2020/2021 season, you were the first player born in 2004 to join Reaktor. Did you realize that it was an important move?
– Of course. I was madly surprised by the difference between the school and the JHL. Almost all Reaktor players are Neftekhimik school alumni. I quickly blended into the team. We had a good pre-season, participated in two tournaments. We played a lot of games, I had a rough understanding of the level of hockey in the league. I had to get used to the pace, which was higher than before. The pace is not only about the speed of movement, but also about thinking, decision-making, shooting, giving passes. I got adjusted to a new level step by step.
– You were taken off of the ice on a stretcher during one of the games. That episode looks scary when you watch it. Do you remember it?
– Yes, it was displeasing. Hockey is one of the most high-injury sports. We all knew what we were signing up for. It was unpleasant, but it’s a part of it. It didn't take me too long to recover - a maximum of a month and a half. I was eager to get back on ice, I tried to persuade doctors to remove my cast, I told them I didn’t feel any pain. But they didn’t listen and told me I needed to make a full recovery. When I got my cast removed, the season had already been finished, so I did make a full recovery. I don’t have any pain now.
– You spent your second season in the JHL, how have you changed during this time?
– I’ve changed a great deal. I have improved my weaknesses and enhanced my strengths. I need to initiate more, demonstrate leadership, encourage guys and lead by example. With the passing of time, I started worrying less, although the responsibility is bigger now. I feel more confident on the ice.
– Why didn’t Reaktor manage to get placed higher in the standings?
– We performed a little better than in the 2020/2021 season, had more points. Sometimes the odds were against us, sometimes we lacked motivation. It’s not a matter of one specific factor. Whoever makes more mistakes loses. Whoever scores more goals wins. Everything is simple. But it remains to be done.
– What will you personally consider as a success in the 2022/2023 season?
– It depends on where I will play and what the coaches will decide. If I play for Reaktor, the goal is to clinch a playoff spot. If I play in the KHL, then I will aim at using every chance given to the full, showing my level of play and distinguishing myself. In my opinion, I am fully ready for the KHL, but the coaches know better. Lookers-on see more than players
– Some players don't like being compared to their relatives. Did you get used to being compared to Nail?
– I did. There is no way around it. We practiced together as kids and we still do when there is a chance. I’ve been looking up to him since childhood. I try to borrow something from each player to get the right balance. I like Tkachuk brothers: Matthew and Brady. Their style is similar to mine. We all have that sports aggression, the right attitude and hockey sense. I like these players.
– Do you remember any valuable piece of advice Nail gave you about hockey?
– There were many of them, he helped me to see the mistakes I had made in games. It is hard to single out a particular piece of advice. Well, one is that if you work hard, you will succeed.
– You were born in a hockey family. Did you understand that you would become a hockey player since childhood?
– Everything was decided a long time ago. I would have become a hockey player, even if I didn’t want to, there was no choice. It seems to me that hockey is the Russia’s number one sport for development. Although we have many popular sports and many champions (in figure skating, for instance), hockey is loved the most.
– Do you remember your first visit to a hockey class?
– Not really, I was too little. What I do remember is my dad taking our sister to skate with us too. Then Elvira started staying at home and there were only two of us practicing. But it was still more fun with her. My sister is doing well even without hockey – she is a smart, beautiful girl with a nice slender figure.
– At what age did you realize that hockey was your lifework?
– My family and I invested so much time and energy in hockey and myself. Just think of all those pucks my dad has for us to practice shooting! It wouldn’t be right for me to give up hockey. I knew it was a lifetime project. Dad always helped me, he accompanied me when I went on tournaments when he could. I am doing what I love, I enjoy it, make my living. Some people work in a job which they don't like. There’s nothing great about it, but there it is.
– There is an impression that all you did was training.
– My dad was responsible for hockey, and my mom was responsible for studying. The latter is something I wasn’t as successful in as my mom would want me to be. I have a few grades C in my school certificate - two or three, not more than that. School was of secondary importance for me, but it was still crucial. You don’t have to be an A-student, but having your head screwed on right is vital. My dad always told me: “Things can be tough in any sphere of life - hockey, school, university. But if you work hard and do your utmost, you will succeed.”