Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nikolai Khabibulin Autographed Card

Although he certainly could have been an Olympian had he not been injured, Nikolai Khabibulin made the news this week for completely different reasons: he was arrested near Phoenix for speeding and drunk driving.

For those wondering what he was doing riding his black Ferrari at double the speed limit in the middle of the Arizona desert while on leave from the Edmonton Oilers after an operation for a herniated disc that could sideline him until the end of the regular season, it is important to note that he had kept his residence in North Scottsdale even after leaving the Phoenix Coyotes for the IHL Long Beach Ice Dogs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, and Oilers. And if you had the liberty to recover from an operation at home, would you prefer doing so in frigid Edmonton, or in the dead heat of the Arizona desert? I'd pick Arizona, myself.

I mentioned something about the Olympics to start this post, saying he could have made the team, but that remains to be proven; Khabibulin, even though he has proven himself to be able to do the job time and time again, has often been shunned by the Russian Federation. It started at the 1992 Olympics, when he was named the team's third-string goalie despite still being of age to play in junior hockey; the Commonwealth Of Independent States, as it was known at the time, under the rigid reign of Viktok Tikhonov, actually won the gold medal. Tikhonov elected to keep Khabibulin's medal, however, claiming Khabibulin wasn't a 'real' member of the team, seeing as he hadn't appeared in a single game (coaches and managers aren't given medals at the Olympics).

For ten years, Khabibulin had refused to represent Russia in World Championships and the 1998 Olympics because of the injustice he figured he'd been a victim of (he did make an exception for the 1996 World Cup, when Tikhonov chose not to coach the national team). By 2002, the International Ice Hockey Federation awarded him a gold medal for his services in the 1992 games, and he accepted to represent Russia in the tournament, winning the bronze medal. He also wore Russia's jersey at the 2006 games, but didn't play a single minute, as the country elected to go with Evgeni Nabokov, who is their top choice again this year, with Ilya Bryzgalov of the Coyotes backing him up.

It's true that Khabibulin is already 37 years old, much older than the other top Russian goalies, but he has proven time and time again to be able to withstand the pressure of important games: while playing in the IHL in a bitter contract dispute with the Coyotes, he was named league MVP when he wasn't allowed to fail; he won the Stanley Cup representing the Lightning; as a Blackhawk, when everyone thought he'd be traded since the team had signed sought-after free agent Cristobal Huet to a hefty starting-goalie contract, he stole the #1 goalie job and led them to a decent position in the regular season and a Conference Final in the playoffs.

In fact, the only thing you might be able to hold against him is that he is a mercenary in the most obvious definition of the term: he will only go to the highest bidder regardless of what their prospects for victory are, and will only bring his A game when there is something on the line. But that's exactly why you'd want him on your Olympic team - he'll get the job done if it kills him.

This beautiful card (#271) is from the 1999-2000 Upper Deck set, and sees him wearing the Coyotes' white home jersey. I think Upper Deck, by extending the picture right to be border of the card, and by making their logo and the writing a bronze foil coating, made this a very classy set.

Also, while I'm not a fan of the Coyotes, their jersey, or their colours, I am a fan of goalies and goalie equipment, and the pads and especially the catching glove look great with the uniform.

This was sent to me by a friend from Toronto who got it in person while attending a Lightning practice when they came to town during their championship run, his final year with that team. He signed it in sharp blue sharpie and added his jersey number (35) at the tail end. The signature complements the equipment, and overall colours, very well.

Get well soon, Nikolai.

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