As Alex Ovechkin’s sidekick, Nicklas Backstrom is always playing in Ovie’s shadow. But behind the closed doors of Washington’s dressing room, the Capitals’ inveterate jokester gets all the accolades.
Nicklas Backstrom has the yips. Too bad, as golf is by far his favorite summer pastime. He’s damn good at it, a five handicap. He carves his way through most courses off the tee, in his approach shots, via his short game. Put the man on a green, however, and his knees start to wobble. Backstrom can’t putt. He’s terrible at reading undulations.
Of all skills on a course for him to lack…putting? Really? This is Nicklas Backstrom, the tranquil Swede with golden blond locks and stoic green eyes. The robotically efficient playmaking machine. The man with more assists than any player not named Joe Thornton or Henrik Sedin since breaking into the NHL in 2007-08.
Putting is the closest thing on a golf course to passing. You’d think it would cater to Backstrom’s talents as much as any non-hockey skill, but it doesn’t. It’s a reminder he’s far more human than he lets on. It hints at someone nothing like the person he appears to be on the ice. On the surface, Backstrom fits a template. He grew up a hockey nut in Valbo, Sweden. He took up the sport by the time he was three, shortly after his father, Anders, retired from a 10-year career with Brynas of the Swedish League. Nicklas’ older brother, Kristoffer, also went on to play in the SHL. Nicklas was so obsessed he would sometimes sleep with his skates on. He idolized the likes of Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom. He was a six-year-old jumping up and down on his couch when Peter Forsberg scored the postage stamp goal at the 1994 Olympics.
Backstrom matured into a sound, disciplined two-way center who could pile up points in chunks and make others around him better. The year after the Washington Capitals drafted him fourth overall in 2006, he captained Sweden’s World Junior Championship squad and excelled against grown men in the SHL, making his transition to the NHL seamless the following season. And boy, has Backstrom been consistent since then. He’s never finished with fewer than 65 points in any full, healthy campaign. He’s at 0.98 points per game after 652 contests, and finished seventh in the league in assists this year. Backstrom, 28, is the picture of reliability and carries the trademark Swedish humility and maturity. He’s a light, easily digestible shortbread, molded by a cookie cutter. He’s even a model teammate. “You have a chance to see him every day in practice, and you can learn a lot from him, how to work hard,” said Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom’s teammate and fellow star center. “I ask him about faceoffs. He’s an open guy, always willing to talk. He’s a great leadership guy.” But that’s the surface Backstrom. Is there more to him than meets the eye? Kuznetsov smirks knowingly at the question. “He only looks like he’s shy,” he said. “He’s a really, really nice guy. He makes good jokes. He’s a good person.” A minute after Kuznetsov’s comment, promising another side to Backstrom, it’s time to meet the man himself – the three-dimensional version. And he does not disappoint. The real-life Backstrom is soft-spoken, sure, he could not look more Swedish, and there’s that modesty (“Oh, really?” he said when told he’s eighth among all NHLers in points since his rookie season). But Backstrom also carries himself with a glimmer in his eyes, like he’s always about to make a joke. He’s witty and disarming. Compliment his hair, which his girlfriend Liza Berg cuts for him, and he starts complimenting yours, grinning, turning the microscope on you. Backstrom is a self-professed joker. He enjoys calmly observing his fellow Caps in the dressing room and launching well-timed barbs at them. “I can tell you right now,” he said, “I’m two different people in the media and in the locker room.” Capitals coach Barry Trotz calls Backstrom a quiet leader, but a leader nonetheless – not naturally vocal with teammates but able to stand up and get his linemates going when they’re not producing. Backstrom is a prankster, too. “You wouldn’t think it would be him,” Trotz said, “which is a great cover for him.” Backstrom’s favorite target is Ovechkin. They know each other inside and out, and though they’re very close, they also know how to get on each other’s nerves. That’s how the shaving cream wars started. Backstrom’s signature move is to sneak up behind ‘Ovie’ stealthily and catch him in the face. Backstrom also willfully celebrates a popular Swedish meme he inadvertently created. He appeared on
Lilla Sportspegeln, a sports TV show, at 17. Nerves got the better of him, and while answering a question he forgot to pronounce the last letter in the sentence, “Det ar skont,” which means “It’s nice.” It came out “De tar skon…t.” The YouTube clip has more than two million views, and he’s famous for it in Sweden. So famous that media personality and former Swedish Idol judge Daniel Breitholtz had Backstrom tattoo “skon…t” on his shoulder. Backstrom had no experience as a tattoo artist but went along with it. “He goes, ‘It’s pretty easy, so just write it,’ ” Backstrom said. “He wanted that on his shoulder, so I was like, ‘All right. You’re an idiot. OK.’ ” Although stunts like that connect Backstrom to his national roots, he loves living in the U.S. with Liza and Haley, his two-year-old daughter, who can understand and speak English and Swedish. He takes Haley out for breakfast and to a playground whenever he gets a Sunday off. “It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. First of all, we have her in our lives, and second of all it’s great for me as a player, too. Before, when I got back from the rink I was pretty much thinking about hockey all the time and reading about hockey all the time. Now I can just really shut that off, be with my daughter and go out and play in the park.” And Backstrom specifically loves Washington D.C. For years, he was big into sightseeing around all the historical attractions. Now he’s seen them all so many times that he gives his visiting friends directions and sends them off on little tours while he stays home. A key reason why D.C. and Backstrom mesh so well: he maintains his anonymity. Casual fans don’t see or hear much about The Other Nicklas Backstrom. He remains firmly engulfed in Ovechkin’s shadow, as has been the case for close to a decade. Perhaps that’s why Backstrom, despite a sparkling resume, only played in his first All-Star Game this season. “The media says it best: they don’t say anything about him,” Trotz said. “I was amazed when I got here that he’d never played in an All-Star Game, and you look at his numbers…I got on my soap box and said, ‘Why isn’t this guy ever mentioned as one of the best two-way players in the game?’ ”
With Kuznetsov, goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman John Carlson also breaking out as big-time players on a stacked roster, Backstrom can hide in plain sight even easier. And that’s how he wants it, even though he’s full of personality away from the TV cameras. “The media are always asking me about how Ovie gets the headlines, Ovie gets the spotlight, and I say, ‘Yeah it’s perfect,’ ” Backstrom said. “I like it that way. He deserves all the credit, too. He’s such a good goal scorer, such a great player for the game, such a great face of the league.” Backstrom pops to his feet to finish his point. “I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m here!’ ” he said, impersonating a jack-in-the-box. “I’m just going to try and do my job. That’s the way it’s been, and that’s the way I want it to be.” Backstrom has always put his team before himself, especially in 2015-16, when the Capitals have their best chance at their first Stanley Cup. In February, they became the fastest team to reach 40 wins in a season. A few shootout victories helped them usurp the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, but the stat is impressive nonetheless. During Backstrom and Ovechkin’s tenures, we’ve heard countless times “this is the year” for Washington, as the team enjoyed plenty of powerhouse regular seasons, most commonly under former coach Bruce Boudreau. But the great irony of this season under Trotz? Backstrom said it’s the first time the players aren’t asking themselves if this is the year. “Barry mentioned that a lot,” Backstrom said. “He changed the mentality, the culture and the organization. We’re trying to be a team that shows up every night to work hard and be a hard team to play against. That’s what we want to be. I feel like we’ve been doing a great job of that so far, and we’ve been winning a lot.” And winning with flair. These Capitals were right among the league leaders in both goals scored and fewest goals against. As Trotz rhymed off with perfect accuracy, they had a minus-5 goal differential in the first period but were plus-27 in the second and plus-36 in the third. They get better as a game goes on. The Capitals have three of the league’s top scorers in Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov, whose breakout campaign has given the team two big-time scoring lines. The off-season additions have paid off, too, none more than right winger Justin Williams, a.k.a. Mr. Game 7, though Backstrom said Williams can’t stand that nickname. His teammates call him ‘Mr. Perfect’ instead. “He’s a really good friend of mine on the team,” Backstrom said. “I hang out with him a lot on the road. You can really tell he won three Stanley Cups, and he’s big in games when he has to be. I’m so impressed with how he acts around the team and how he brings good vibes in the locker room.” The Caps are 3-6 in Game 7s during the Ovechkin/Backstrom era and have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs, so they need all the “good vibes” Williams can bring. Maybe they’ll finally put Washington over the top in 2015-16. On paper, this team needs nothing else. It has elite goaltending, elite scoring, elite size, elite toughness, elite checking forwards, elite depth, elite coaching, elite special teams. No excuses to not win a Cup or at least win several series. And a parade in D.C. just might crack Backstrom’s shell of anonymity. Maybe then he’d show his charismatic true self to the world. Hopefully he’s not too nervous to finish his sentence…s.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.