Learning a Second Language, Skating on the First Line?

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nicklas Backstrom wishes he didn't need a few extra seconds to think before he talks. It's what he misses most about being at home: being able to speak without having to worry if people will understand him, or if he'll use the correct English word. In Swedish, he knows exactly what he wants to say.

"It's annoying," said Backstrom, the Washington Capitals' first-round (fourth overall) draft pick in 2006. "When you have your own language you don't have to think about things to say. I have to think about some words that I don't understand, but I will learn it better."

He occasionally may need to ask about certain words on a menu, but some things remain unchanged in the shadow of a language barrier, such as how fast Backstrom ran for cover when he got caught near the Washington Monument in a downpour on Tuesday afternoon.

Seeking refuge under a concessions tent across the street, a drenched Backstrom didn't need any ornate prose.

"This [stinks]," he said, wiping the water from his face. And no, they don't have storms that creep up on unsuspecting pedestrians like that in Sweden.

Luckily for the Capitals, another thing that's unhampered by how well the 19-year-old center speaks English is how well he speaks the language of hockey, something that's the same regardless if he's in Sweden or in Arlington at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

On Tuesday, the 19-year-old Backstrom stood back from the group of early arrivals at the Capitals' conditioning camp and inadvertently nodded his head as Coach Glen Hanlon diagrammed the different one-on-one and breakaway drills he wanted the players to skate through.

He may not have said much to the other players on the ice, but he knew what he needed to do.

"That's hockey world," said Backstrom, a native of Gavle, Sweden, whom the Capitals think will skate on the first or second line next year alongside one of their young Russian left wings, Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin.

Hanlon said that Backstrom's comprehension of team meetings conducted in English is better than Ovechkin's was in his rookie season.

"He understands. He's way more advanced. In Sweden, there's a lot more English spoken, a lot more English TV channels and they all seem to watch MTV.

"With him, it's more getting used to our training, getting used to some of our systems," he continued. "We'll spend more time showing him our system play than we would some of the others."

Expectations for Backstrom's career have ballooned over his past two seasons with Brynas in the Swedish Elite League, where in 2005-06 he was named rookie of the year and led the team with 26 points before being drafted by the Capitals. He led the team in points (40) and assists (28) last season, when he opted to remain in Sweden rather than join the Capitals.

"I was 16 my first game in the Swedish Elite League, after that it goes so fast," he said, recalling the whirlwind series of events that have led up to this week's conditioning camp. "Everything just goes so fast, I don't know how it's happening."

One thing Backstrom was sure of, however, was that his decision to remain in Sweden for one more year was the right one, adding that he has "grown as a person."

"It seems that his stock rose so quickly last year that it's probably hard for him to imagine that six months after he started to play that he'd be taken in the first round and be asked to come over and play in America," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said.

McPhee said he believes that as Backstrom begins to settle down with the organization, he will be able to relax and focus on his game.

"In some ways, it may be easier for him to play hockey here than it has been in the past year in Sweden because he was in a fishbowl over there," McPhee said. "There was a lot on his shoulders in a lot of ways. He can come here like Ovechkin did two years ago without a lot of expectation and just play."

Just in case Backstrom needs to ask questions that he only can articulate in Swedish, center Michael Nylander said he's more than willing to help out his young countryman, with one condition.

"I will be his big brother, okay," said Nylander, who played with Backstrom on Sweden's 2006 world championship team and signed with the Capitals earlier this month. "But he will have to babysit my [six] children so I can go to dinner with my wife. That sounds really good."

When asked if he would, Backstrom smiled and replied, "Yeah, no problem."

Capitals Notes : One day after the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Sidney Crosby to a five-year contract extension, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis acknowledged that the club and Ovechkin have had exploratory talks on an extension, but that nothing is imminent. Ovechkin, an all-star who will be entering the final year of his entry-level deal, does not have an agent and is dealing directly with McPhee, Leonsis said.

"I'm sure that the Ovechkin family and the Washington Capitals will come to a place where we both think is fair and right, and Alex will be here for a long time," Leonsis said. "That's his goal and I'm sure it will work out. He'll save some money by not having an agent." . . .

The Capitals signed goaltending prospect Simeon Varlamov to a three-year entry-level contract. The 19-year-old, who was selected 23rd overall in 2006, went 15-7-6 for Yaroslavl of the Russian Super League last season, posting a 2.12 goals against average.

The contract contains a clause that allows Varlamov to return to Russia next season. It will pay him $765,000 per year and includes an $85,000 signing bonus.

Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.

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