QUEBEC CITY – Two years ago, in Riga, Nicklas Backstrom was Bengt-Ake Gustafsson’s surprise selection to the World Championship team, a teen phenom Sweden hadn’t seen since the Sedin brothers were tearing up the Swedish league.
Barely 18 years old, he made Swedish hockey history by being the youngest player ever to represent Tre Kronor in a World Championship.
Today, he’s the Swedish national team’s leading forward and biggest star, at least until goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist comes to town. Backstrom is probably looking forward to Lundqvist’s arrival, not only because it’s nice to have the world’s premier goalie on your team, but because he also likes to hang around in the background, leaving the spotlight to the Lundqvists and Ovechkins.
It’s getting more difficult, though, with a World Championship gold from 2006, and a Calder Trophy nomination as the Rookie of the Year in the NHL this year. But, easy going Backstrom takes it in a stride.
“I’m not the kind of person who looks into the future or plans things a lot, I like to take it day by day,” he says.
With no Forsberg, Zetterberg or Sundin on the Swedish roster, Backstrom finds himself being the go-to guy, the first line centre in this year’s tournament. He’s bulked up with both muscle and self confidence since 2006. As he should, after a solid regular season in the NHL, where he picked up 69 points in 82 games. In the playoffs, he scored four goals, and six points, as Washington pushed Flyers to seven games.
“Those seven playoff game were the most fun I’ve had this season, it was such a great experience,” he says, smiling,
“It was so fast, there were goals, hits, fights - and I’m not even a fighter - that just made it a great time to be a hockey player. Now I know what it’s like, and I want to get back again,” he says.
The season didn’t begin well for the Capitals as they only won six of their first 21 games. Coach Glen Hanlon – in Quebec as Belarus's coach – was let go, and Bruce Boudreau took over. He made some changes to the team’s system, and made things simpler, says Backstrom.
Boudreau got the team flying, and they lost only 17 of their last 60 games, finishing on the top of the Northeast division in the NHL. Youngsters Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin clicked on the ice, and off.
“‘Ovie’ knew what it was like, because he had been in my situation a couple of years earlier, so he gave me good tips and pointers. He basically just encouraged me to be me and to believe in myself,” Backstrom says.
“But really, the biggest help was that Michael Nylander was there, he and his family helped me a lot with everything,” he says about his fellow Swede.
Team Sweden manager Mats Naslund won the Swedish Championship with Brynas together with Nicklas Backstrom’s father, Anders, in 1980 and has followed his teammate’s son’s career from the first steps.
“Of course, I watch him a little closer, having known Nicklas since he was a baby,” Naslund says.
And he likes what he sees.
“He’s become a complete player, he’s faster than last year, he can control the pace of the game by slowing it down when he wants to, or picking it up if he chooses to. You can also tell that the opponents know who he is, and respect him,” Naslund says.
The Washington Capitals players have been some of the brightest stars of the tournament so far. There’s Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov with Russia, Tomas Fleischmann with the Czech Republic, Cristobal Huet with France, and Backstrom with the Swedes, but Backstrom says he doesn’t think about the star power in Washington that much.
“Sure, Sergei Fedorov is a great player, and he has helped me tremendously by giving me little pointers and showing me how to do things. He is such a modest and kind person,” he says.
“But I don’t think about them as stars, I see them as friends.”
While many Swedish NHLers declined the invitation to Tre Kronor, the thought didn’t occur to Backstrom.
“I’m still young, so I have the energy. I’m actually surprised at how fresh I am. The season is long, and I thought I’d be more tired, but I feel good,” he says.
Backstrom has three goals, and four points, in the tournament so far. Sweden can get much better, he believes.
“We just need to get the team to gel, and stay focused, work hard with the defence,” he says.
Backstrom takes care of the rest.