NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nicklas Backstrom was nearly 3 years old when he received his first pair of ice skates — rugged yellow-and-brown hand-me-downs first worn by an older cousin before they were gifted to his older brother.
There was no ice outside on which Backstrom could skate, and so in his excitement, he wore them all day, gashing the floors throughout the house with their dulled blades, dodging pleas from his parents, Anders and Cartin, that he take them off.
“I didn’t want to take them off,” Backstrom said, smiling, “so I slept with them on. My parents couldn’t do anything. I wanted them on. That’s what happens.”
Hockey had always played a large role in Backstrom’s upbringing. His father, a defenseman who played in Sweden’s top-level Elitserien in the 1980s, had Nicklas and his brother, Kristoffer, in skates not long after they learned to walk. When they were in grade school, Anders laid down a sheet of ice in the backyard of the family home in Valbo, Sweden, that allowed his sons to skate before and after hockey practice.
That early guidance set Backstrom on a path that would lead to excellence. A first-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2006, the center has annually finished among the NHL leaders in points and assists, holding the franchise record in the latter. He has appeared in the playoffs in all but one of his eight seasons and has twice represented Sweden in the Olympics, winning a silver medal in Sochi in 2014.
Through all of those honors, one would escape Backstrom — that is, until this weekend. On Sunday afternoon, he will pull a gold and black sweater over his head and take the ice at Bridgestone Arena, where, for the first time, the NHL shield stitched across his chest will bestow a new label.
Nicklas Backstrom. All-star.
“He’s such a good player that does it so quietly, unassuming, and sometimes, people overlook that,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “When he’s said and done and you look at his numbers, you’re going to go, ‘Those might be the quietest Hall of Fame numbers you’ve ever seen.’”
‘The voice of reason’
Although Henrik Lundqvist had been playing in the United States for two years, the New York Rangers’ goaltender occasionally kept an eye on the next can’t-miss prospect back home. In 2006, that led him to a skillful, cerebral young center from suburban Gavle.
Lundqvist first met Backstrom at a national team training camp around that time, and over the years, their respect for each other strengthened. Early on, they’d meet for dinner the night before a game and discuss life, traveling and, of course, hockey.
“He’s a great guy, a humble guy,” Lundqvist said. “I would say he’s a typical Swede to me — pretty quiet. … It’s very easy to be around him.”
Such humility has enshrouded Backstrom for years, and though he disagrees with the assessment — “I’m real,” he insisted, as if the trait carries a robotic, emotionless feel — he made the decision long ago not to fight it. After all, the Capitals have one dynamic personality in Alex Ovechkin, their scoring machine, and Backstrom recognized that projecting exuberance during every public appearance would be trying.
Teammates insist Backstrom isn’t as reserved as he appears, acknowledging he’s just as likely to offer motivation as he is a verbal jab or two. Trotz referred to him as “the voice of reason.”
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘charismatic,’” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Whenever there’s a conversation, he’s in on the conversation. It’s not like he sits there quietly in the corner and just listens to everything. He’s a part of everything that goes on.”
That approach carries onto the ice, where Backstrom’s play has been described as steady and graceful but never flashy. As if to underscore that simplicity, Trotz resurrected the names of Hall of Fame centers Jean Beliveau and Jean Ratelle, each of whom played in the 1960s, when describing Backstrom’s game; they, Trotz said, had style, but were very unassuming.
An equally-apt defensive player, Backstrom logs minutes not only on the power play and penalty kill units, but also on both five-on-three teams. With 456 career assists, he set the team record in that category last March; with 16 goals and 29 assists this season, he’s on pace to reach 30 goals and 55 assists, which would be his most productive output since 2009-10.
Center Mike Richards, who joined the Capitals earlier this month, lumped Backstrom in with Peter Forsberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin when describing trying to defend him. With most players, he said, you need to take away their space to stop them. Backstrom needs more space because of how crafty he can be.
“They’re scared of him making them look stupid with the skill level that he has,” Richards said. “When you give him that much room … some of the plays that he makes out there are pretty incredible to watch.”
In recent years, Capitals players would excitedly lump Backstrom into the conversation when addressing the team’s potential all-star selections, only to have their center left out when rosters were unveiled.
That was fine with Backstrom, who, like many players, equated all-star weekend with a getaway.
“I told myself a couple years ago that if you make the All-Star Game, it would be great,” Backstrom said. “It’s fun, I’m sure. It would be a fun experience. But, if not, I’m not going to waste any energy on it. I’m just going to go on vacation instead.”
There had been perhaps no greater fan of Backstrom’s over the last 18 months than Trotz, who, not long after being hired to coach the Capitals, salivated over the prospects of coaching Backstrom as well as Ovechkin. The coach’s staunch promotion of his top-line center paid off earlier this month once Backstrom was included among this year’s honorees.
“Everybody know he’s a kind of guy who deserves to be there — not [only] this year, previous years as well,” Ovechkin said.
The selection arrived at an interesting time for Backstrom, who had, in some regards, believed that this could be a less-than-stellar season after undergoing hip surgery in May. He ended up missing just the preseason and three regular-season games before making his debut, in which he had a goal and two assists.
It also comes after the NHL scrapped the traditional All-Star Game in favor of a three-on-three tournament involving four teams. When Backstrom was growing up and playing on his backyard rink, he and his brother would be joined by other children, roughly a half-dozen of them, including a neighbor who was a goaltender.
At times, they would invent games to test their skills, but often, they kept it simple: Two teams, three on three, with the winner taking home bragging rights.
“That was an awesome experience when you’re looking back at it now,” Backstrom said. “It brings back memories.”