EDMONTON – Nikolai Khabibulin arrived at the Edmonton Oilers training camp Friday determined to focus on hockey and not a possible jail sentence in a sweltering Arizona tent-prison.
“It is what it is,” Khabibulin said of the uncertainty surrounding his drunk driving and excessive speeding conviction stemming from an incident in a Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb last February.
“It’s not something I wish I had to go through. It’s hard on everybody—my family, my wife, my daughter,” the 37-year-old netminder added after the Oilers underwent medical exams and had their pictures taken on the first day of training camp. “When everything gets resolved, we’ll deal with it.
“I try not to read the newspapers.”
The Russian was convicted on three counts last month and received a minimum 30-day sentence. His lawyer immediately appealed but didn’t say on what grounds. The appeals process could last months or even a year.
If jailed, it’s possible Khabibulin could serve his time at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City prison in the Arizona desert.
Prisoners at the 2,000-tent complex are subjected to rough, frontier justice where they live in 40 C heat without air conditioning. They’re also humiliated by having to wear pink underwear.
Shaun Attwood, a recent inmate from Britain, has written a book on his experiences and told The Guardian newspaper heat-related health problems are the mild part of the punishment. He wrote of toilets clogged with yellow-brown waste, mouldy sandwiches and prisoners shooting up crystal meth or heroin.
The bugs, he said, were the worst.
“I couldn’t believe all the cockroaches,” Attwood told The Guardian. “I couldn’t sleep with them crawling on me. They tickle your hands and limbs and go in your ears to eat your earwax. You can cover yourself with a sheet, but it’s so hot, you sweat all day and you get skin infections and bedsores, especially on your buttocks.
“Having the cockroaches crawling on me gave me a nervous breakdown.”
Meanwhile, Khabibulin’s decision to appeal has also brought uncertainty to the Oilers goaltending situation.
He’s in the second year of a four-year US$15-million deal he signed as a free agent. Khabibulin played just 18 games last season before a herniated disc in his back forced him to have surgery in January.
He said Friday he’s healed.
“As of right now, I’m feel like I’m healthy,” he said. “For me if I can play 60 games at a high level, that would be pretty good.”
When asked how he feels about his legal woes causing problems for the Oilers, who now don’t know if they’ll lose their starting goalie midway through the year to the U.S. penal system, he said, “I don’t know what the answer would be to that.”
Oilers coach Tom Renney said the team will be there for him.
“We’ll do everything we can to make sure he feels very comfortable coming back and being a hockey player for the Oilers,” said Renney. “There are some things we can control and certainly internally our environment is one of them.
“Outside of that, we don’t have a whole lot of control.”
The players hit the ice Saturday at Rexall Place and the goal is to turn the page on a nightmarish 2009-10 season that saw the Oilers hit rock bottom in the NHL.
General manager Steve Tambellini took a wrecking ball to the whole hockey side of the organization in the off-season. Locker-room staff were let go, head coach Pat Quinn was replaced with Renney while veterans like Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani were shown the door.
Defenceman Sheldon Souray is still awaiting a trade to a new team.
No. 1 pick Taylor Hall is one of a triumvirate of new forwards—along with Jordan Eberle and Swede Magnus Paajarvi—that the team plans to build around.
“Last year was the hardest year of my career and I think everyone who was here would say the same,” said defenceman Jason Strudwick. “I don’t even think about it anymore because there was nothing that came out of it that was positive—other than Taylor Hall.”