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Rambler's Top100

29 февраля 2000 года.

TIM BROWN , Times Staff Writer 

Nikolai Khabibulin demanded to know if it always rained like this in Southern California, if the water always gathered on the freeways in vast, deep pools where Geos disappear without so much as a single bubble. 

During the worst of it last week, Khabibulin thought it was terrible, this sopping, charcoal dreariness. 

Still, a slight smile escaped from behind his cool eyes, eyes that for five seasons stared from behind an NHL goalie mask, eyes that turned away from a negotiating table months ago, he said, never to return. 

A two-time NHL All-Star in the prime of his career, Khabibulin, 27, completed practice on a gray morning inside the Long Beach Arena, where that night 2,749 would watch him stop all but one shot, many brilliantly, against the Houston Aeros. Three weeks from the NHL's March 14 trading deadline, Khabibulin is a goaltender for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League. 

"He's not mad about being here," said Mike Matteucci, a teammate. "It looks like he's having fun out there. He's not here to pout, like a lot of guys would." 

There is no judging a man's principles, even if by bending them he would still be a multi-millionaire. Khabibulin said he cannot relent now, now that he has stated his intentions. 

Six weeks have passed since Khabibulin or his agent, New York's Jay Grossman, negotiated with the NHL team that holds Khabibulin's rights, the Phoenix Coyotes. And so the strong, silent Russian plays in hockey limbo, an NHL holdout, an IHL star, wondering where all of the rain came from. Coyote management, too, has principles. 

"I don't think it's that easy," he said. "I mean, let's face it, I'm losing money right now. I don't live in my house. But, it's OK. It could be a lot worse. I'm fine with that." 

Khabibulin will earn about $100,000 for the Ice Dogs, a sizable chunk of the $1.2 million General Manager/Coach John Von Boxmeer budgeted for his payroll, and he stays in a former teammate's home in Anaheim Hills, not his own in Scottsdale, Ariz. His daughter, Alexandra, is 7 and should be in first grade, but is not in school. 

"We bought some books," Khabibulin said. 

A Group 2 restricted free agent after last season, when his goals-against average was a career-best 2.13, Khabibulin could not come to terms with the Coyotes. When the club denied his request for $20 million over five seasons, Khabibulin said he would never play again in Phoenix. Coyote General Manager Bobby Smith said there would be no more contract discussions. That is why, in the prime of an emerging career, Khabibulin played in a near-empty arena, 3,000 miles from Toronto, where at the same time the Coyotes lost in front of more than 19,000 fans.

The IHL game is showy and hip. The hockey is serious and edgy. The independent Ice Dogs are the model organization.

In the middle of it stands Khabibulin, turning away shots with breathless precision. 

"Of course I would like to play in the NHL right now," he said. "I mean, if I don't play I don't get a chance to win the Stanley Cup. It's that simple. But I have to do what I have to do. I'm still young and I think I still have a few years ahead of me." 

He does not appear to be a desperate man, even as his season melts away, even as the trading deadline nears, even as the days pass without a telephone call from Smith. 

If the Coyotes are desperate, they haven't shown it. When veteran goaltender Sean Burke injured his thumb early in the season, it didn't thaw negotiations in the least. 

"I don't know how long it's going to be," Khabibulin said, "but I've said lots of times, we're going to wait it out." 

Alexander Khabibulin, Nikolai's father, possesses a relentless sense of honor and principle, according to his son, who figures that's where he gets it from. Retired from his life's work as a maintenance man in a concrete factory, Alexander would understand his son's predicament. 

"Never, ever," Nikolai said, "would he say he was going to do something and not do it." 

He cites the principle of it, the same stringent standard that caused Khabibulin to boycott the 1998 Olympics because of an old feud with the Soviet Union's national program. He would have preferred to play, but chose not to. He would prefer to earn millions in the NHL, even at a lesser contract, but chooses not to, not if it demeans his sense of fairness. 

"When you're a player," Van Boxmeer said, "you have your own sense of self-worth, what it is you feel you're worth, and what you feel you should be able to earn in the marketplace." 

As a result, and out of the need to remain polished if he were traded or signed, however unlikely, he arrived in Long Beach in mid-January. He immediately impressed the organization with his work habits and professional conduct. He was polite, enthusiastic and felt badly when another goaltender was cut to make room. In fact, he apologized to the man. 

"He's not just down here to play the games and not worry about the outcome," Van Boxmeer said. "Obviously he's here to stay in shape, but he's playing to win. I'm sure [the contract impasse] is something he deals with every day." 

Later that night, in front of that small crowd in that minor-league building, Khabibulin won his eighth consecutive start. He happily accepted the congratulatory taps from his teammates, the chants of "Boo-lin" from the knot of fans behind the far goal. They call him "The Bulin Wall." 

He would return to his wife and daughter in Anaheim Hills, to someone else's home, to something much less than $4 million a season. 

And as he pulled a sweater over his head at the end of the night, he waved at a visitor and asked, "Do you have any of the NHL scores?" 

Страничка Николая Хабибулина на сайте "Звёзды с Востока"


11 октября. Показатели Хабибулина продолжают подать. 

7 октября. Воробьев помог Хабибулину одержать первую победу в составе «Блэкхаукс». 

23 сентября. Хабибулин пока не показывает свой лучшей игры. 

5 августа. Хабибулин перебирается в Чикаго. 

29 марта. Хабибулин и Лекавалиер в центре внимания прессы Тампы. 

2 февраля. Николай Хабибулин: "Думать в воротах - непозволительная роскошь" - Спорт-Экспресс

22 ноября. Афанасенков против Хабибулина // "Спорт-Экспресс"

23 октября. Хабибулин и Каспарайтис - в "Ак Барсе" - "Спорт-Экспресс"


"ЗВЁЗДЫ С ВОСТОКА" @ c 1997 года