The forward is the top goal scorer of his team and makes the JHL top three.
18-year-old Raul Yakupov is now in his third Junior Hockey League season. The forward has scored 41 (24+17) points in 39 games played in the 2022/23 season, he is ranked first among goal scores of Nizhnekamsk Reaktor and makes the JHL top three. The player has spent his entire career with the Neftekhimik franchise he is a trainee of and has already made his Kontinental Hockey League debut with the main team in the 2021/22 season.
In an interview with the JHL website, Raul Yakupov disclosed the secret of his point production and talked about why he wants to play in Nizhnekamsk as long as possible. And what is more, the forward dreams of visiting Tokyo and finds the profession of a fashion designer appealing.
— You have already scored 24 goals in the 2022/23 season. What is the secret of your production?
— I have been lucky enough to have that nose for the net from childhood up. But it only comes with constant work on increasing shot quality. I shoot a lot both during practices and in my spare time.
— Do you stay up to date with the scoring race?
— No, I don’t follow it at all. I believe that statistics are for other people to deal with. Checking the stats won’t do me a world of good. I try not to clutter up my mind with unnecessary numbers, so I don’t follow them. It’s JHL social media that keep me informed of my achievements.
— But doesn’t this competitive pursuit increase the motivation?
— When I first found out that I was ranked high among goal scores, it engaged my every thought: I turned my mind to making a push and topping the list. In the 2022/23 season, team goals come before personal ones.
— Do goals scored give a confidence boost?
— I would say, they imply increased responsibility, it is a must. It’s good to score points. But they won’t get you anywhere if your team doesn’t make the play-in tournament or the playoffs.
— Do you set yourself an aim of increasing the number of goals scored season by season?
— There is only one aim I set: to keep progressing. This includes not only increased number of goals scored, but general improvement as well. Stats are important, but I also need to work on back-pressure support, speed, shot power, quick decision-making.
— You made your KHL debut in the 2021/22 season, but didn’t log much of ice time. Do you set a goal of playing more minutes this season?
— I surely do, this goal is always there. My debut was a modest one, but I did get the feel of the team atmosphere, took an inside look at everything. Now I would love to play more minutes, I’m ready for it.
— Some players say that assists bring more joy than goals do. Do you agree?
— No, they are lying (laughs). Scoring goals, without question, is always more fun. But if you get credited with an assist in a hard-fought game, it brings as much joy as scoring a goal does. When passions run high, even a goal you personally haven’t assisted on carries a very strong emotional charge.
— How can you evaluate Reaktor's performance in the 2022/23 season?
— We would like to be placed higher in the standings, so as to start the play-in tournament as a high-placed finisher. It is what we are focusing on now. We will play some good games against Gold Division teams, and then face our direct competitor, Perm Molot. We need to get as many points as possible in these games. I believe, we will succeed in it all.
— You have been with the Neftekhimik franchise since childhood. Are you happy with the level of hockey?
— Nizhnekamsk hockey has always been at a very good level and it has produced such players as Pavel Kulikov, Bogdan Yakimov, Timur Khafizov. Many local players are with the franchise. I think it is a good indicator. Less than all KHL teams have as many alumni as my club does.
— Did you receive any offers to join other teams?
— Yes, I did and I still sometimes do. Nonetheless I want to stay with my club as long as possible, to play in my hometown, to make a positive contribution here. I feel responsible to Reaktor fans, because I represent my hockey school, my coaches, my family and myself. I am a local guy, and I have to perform to expectations.
— Your cousin Nail Yakupov played in North America. Do you have a desire to try your hand there?
— I did think about it, but seeing hockey in Russia and America in the coronavirus years made me change my mind. We had a long season, unlike American and Canadian players who barely played 20 games. In general, the current level of hockey in Russia is not too different from that in North America due to player development system, including the JHL.
— You are now in your third JHL season. Has the league changed over the years?
— It seems to me it has. Everything suits me down to the ground. I just wish we played more games during a season. Teams being split into Gold and Silver divisions is something new. As a Silver division player, when I face Gold Division teams, I feel like an underdog and beating them feels even nicer. It gives some extra motivation, since we want to prove that we are here for a good reason.
— And how have you personally changed during the course of playing in the JHL?
— I have been playing more physical. I had a chance to get a feel of the men’s team during preseason and it also helped me improve my conditioning. I gain more strength and speed year by year. Conditioning plays center stage in modern hockey. As for mentality, one must be stress-resistant, focus on the positive, and shut ears to the negative.
— How do you get prepared for games?
— I try not to be at the mercy of superstitions. As for me, they originate from lack of self-confidence. So I don't follow any specific rituals. The only thing I do before games is making sure I don’t fritter away my energies. I try not to have any laughs or get upset by small things so as to save as much energy and emotional charge for the game as possible.
— Do you have pre-game jitters?
— When I was in my first season, I used to feel quite jittery before games, but now it's more of thrill of the competition. I want my team to get more and more points, to build confidence and move up the standings.
— How do you analyze games played?
— We analyze the most obvious moments right after a game is played. Then I watch all my shifts by myself. Before each following game, my dad and I perform an analysis and discuss some details. He gives me some pieces of advice. We sometimes work on certain things together, but we don’t get to practice together as often as we would like to. Even when I practice by myself, his pointers allow me to know exactly what to do.
— How do you handle failures?
— By keeping working hard. We have a poster in the locker room that says “Confidence comes from hard work. The harder you work, the more confidence you get.” I may lose, but the following day I will hit the ice and do what I have to do. Sports are about ups and downs. But I believe only those who work their way through bad streaks manage to excel in hockey. They go towards their aim no matter what. They just don’t overfocus on whether a game was a good or a bad one.
— You have mentioned your family more than once. How does their support help you?
— My family support me with their pieces of advice. They never lie or leave anything unsaid. They would rather tell me the bitter truth than sugar-coated lie. My cousin also helps me, he watches games when he has a chance and analyzes some things with me if I ask him to. My dad does his best to attend every single home game. He always watches away games on TV. When I was a kid, my father used to go on some road trips me. My mom tries to avoid stressing and hardly ever watches games.
— Did you do other sports when you were a child?
— I was having swimming lessons for three years. I guess, swimming influenced my general development, I met and communicated with new people there. I also loved playing backyard soccer, it was a fun thing to do in my free time.
— What would you be doing if it wasn’t for hockey?
— I have never thought about it before. Well, probably, I would become a fashion designer. I really like the variety of other people’s looks, why not put some skin in the game. I don’t have any designer labels, but I have always been fond of nice sneakers. When I began to study this topic, I found out that some brands started out in garages and basements. It’s really inspiring.
— What kind of person are you on and off the ice?
— I try to keep my personal life and hockey separate, because we hit the ice to fight for our contracts, reputation and name, points and wins. When I am on the ice, I am not as kind-hearted as I am in real life. It’s my job after all. I have no intention of taking a back seat.
— Who are the athletes that you like?
— If we speak about hockey, I would name Tkachuk brothers. It even seems to me that my style of play bears certain similarity to theirs. As for other sports, it is boxer Floyd Mayweather. The thing I like the most about him is his confidence: if he says he will win, then so be it. I believe he didn’t lose a single fight.
— What is your attitude to being interviewed?
— I feel totally fine about being interviewed. Our sport is developing and becoming more open to public. I want people to learn something new about hockey. I treat reporters with respect and never decline an interview.
— Can you decline an interview if you are asked for it after a bad game?
— I have never come up against such a situation before and I hope I never will. Most likely, I still won’t decline to be interviewed, because reporters are not to blame for a loss.
— Do you get messages from fans?
— Yes, I do, but not as often as I would like to (laughs). I never refuse when asked for an autograph or a picture, I always respond to their messages. It happens that they write some bad stuff, but very seldom. I try not to pay attention to such messages.
— You mentioned that you always eat healthy. Don’t you ever eat any junk food?
— I do my best to always eat clean, but sometimes fail to do so when I am on vacation. I like fast food. But still, my favorite food is that cooked by my mom.
— What kind of rest do you prefer?
— I enjoy playing other sports: soccer and basketball. I like tennis, but I am not too good at it yet. I also love curling: I enjoy watching it and my dream is to try playing it. On top of that, I am a keen traveler: we often used to go to Turkey when I was a kid, I have also been to Greece and the United Arab Emirates. I really want to visit Canada and the USA, to learn a little more about my favorite game of hockey. But Tokyo tops my must-visit list. I have seen many movies and photographs from this city. It attracts me with its futurism, tall illuminated buildings, nice cars, landscapes and the hustle and bustle of the city.