Alexei Yashin on KHL All-Star Game, Nabokov drama
The voice at the other end of the phone is familiar, even four years removed from the NHL.
Alexei Yashin is in a good mood. It's All-Star weekend in the KHL (you can watch the KHL All-Star Game on ESPN3 on Saturday), and the former New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators center feels a tinge of pride in the fledging league's evolution.
"It's going to be a big hockey celebration in Russia this weekend," Yashin told ESPN.com on Friday.
The 37-year-old player is in a happy place, which you could argue he hardly ever found in Long Island or Ottawa despite making a healthy living in the NHL. In fact, as part of the Islanders' buyout four years ago, they continue to pay him ($4.75 million this season and $2.2 million annually through the 2014-15 season).
Unwanted in the NHL, or at least at his price, Yashin took his game back home. It's a decision that should have surprised no one. Having had the chance to cover six IIHF World Championships from 2000-05, I witnessed Yashin as a constant for Russia, proudly wearing his country's colors at a spring tournament shunned by many NHL stars.
So, it only stands to reason Yashin was there ready to help his country's start-up league; and to understand his legacy at home, look no further than "Team Yashin," one of the two All-Star teams that will be on the ice Saturday.
"The most important part for me has been the fans' reaction since I came back," said Yashin. "It's been tremendous. The fan support has been great. I appreciate that a lot, because without them, it would be difficult."
And the KHL as a product?
"The league is doing very good, it has developed from year to year," said Yashin. "Some stars have come back. The level of hockey is very good."
We'll have to agree to disagree on that one. If the level of hockey was that great, Chris Simon would not be in your All-Star Game, even if he does lead his Vityaz Chekhov club in scoring with 28 points (16-12) in 43 games.
Yashin has 31 points (14-17) in 49 games for SKA St. Petersburg, a club that also features the likes of Maxim Afinogenov, Danny Markov and Denis Grebeshkov. It also began the season with star goalie Evgeni Nabokov in net before he left the club and returned to North America after appearing in 22 games.
Given that Yashin's former team in Long Island suspended Nabokov for failing to report after being claimed on NHL waivers from Detroit, Yashin revealed an interesting tidbit when asked about the goalie.
"What actually happened is that the Islanders called me before they took him on waivers," said Yashin, who left the Islanders on good terms with owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow. "I spoke with Garth and I expressed my opinion about how good Evgeni is as a person and as a goalie. What happened after, why he chose not to come to Islanders, I can't really say anything because it wasn't my decision."
Yashin is an unrestricted free agent after the season. Would he consider a return to the NHL?
"Every year is a different situation, a new situation, you never know what's going to happen," said Yashin. "My contract is expiring. I will look around at what the best situation is for me next year."
The better question is, at age 37, will he continue playing?
"I go year by year," said Yashin. "People are asking me when I'm going to retire, but I still enjoy playing hockey. I want to play as long as I'm having fun, and right now, I'm having fun and I hope it will continue."