The taxi ride to Gavlerinken Arena winds through Gävle’s tree-lined downtown and features a pronunciation lesson. While the city is pronounced YAHV-leh, the hockey rink uses a hard “g,” like the Gevalia coffee roaster that has its factory here. Perhaps unintentionally, the arena name incorporated the two things residents are most passionate about: the Brynäs hockey team and coffee too strong for most tourists to drink black.
The driver doesn’t ask why an American from Washington, D.C., is headed there in early August. He already knows.
“So, you’re going to see Nicklas Backstrom,” he says.
The outside of the building doesn’t seem so different from Washington’s Capital One Arena on this particular afternoon. Pop music blares through the speakers while people wander in and out of the team store. Mixed in with the fans donning black Brynäs jerseys are some in red Capitals sweaters that have Backstrom’s name and No. 19 on the back.
At 2:55 p.m., a text arrives from the man himself: “Where you at?”
A bicycle approaches the front entrance with Backstrom atop it. He rode the 30 minutes from his home in Valbo in shorts and a T-shirt, casual despite his status here — the biggest hockey star from a hockey town.
In the NHL, he’s often been an afterthought — named to the All-Star Game just once and never winning any major individual award. On the Capitals, his subtle playmaking is overshadowed by the big hits and screaming shots of longtime teammate Alex Ovechkin.
But outside Gavlerinken Arena, a group of teenagers stops to gawk as Backstrom, hiding behind heavily tinted sunglasses, takes the bike around back to avoid making a grand entrance.
“I guess you’ve never seen me like this before,” he says.
Backstrom is Washington’s second-most popular hockey player, but his preference to stay out of the spotlight for the past 11 years has made him something of an enigma among Capitals fans. They defend his play as underrated and his passing as elite, and they wish he’d get more recognition. He’s the other half of so many Ovechkin goals — and the other face of the franchise. And yet throughout his time in Washington, Backstrom has kept his private life very much private.
The arena’s back door is open, and he’ll carry the Stanley Cup through it in two days. But first Backstrom takes a seat in the upper bowl and starts to unfurl the origin story of his rise to silent stardom.
‘He hardly spoke to anyone’
The red house in which Backstrom grew up stands at the bend of a narrow road, sheep resting in an open field along one side. The neighborhood is now home to Mackmyra Whisky, Sweden’s first single malt, but back when Backstrom first put on skates, the quiet enclave felt even more removed from the bustle of Stockholm, just two hours to the south, or even nearby downtown Gävle. The farm animals and distillery weren’t here, and the expanse of grass would get flooded to make an ice sheet for the local kids. Backstrom wouldn’t want to leave it.
“You’re probably wondering, ‘Where the f— am I?’ ” Backstrom teases.
One of Backstrom’s earliest memories was walking through that house with his skates on — “My dad was probably not too happy about that,” he says — and marching to his upstairs bedroom refusing to take them off. He’d wake up still wearing them the next day. Posters of Swedish hockey greats Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg, who preceded Backstrom to the NHL, covered his wall and door.
“That’s how much I was in love with hockey and the game,” he says.
His father, Anders, won a championship with Brynäs and retired shortly after Backstrom was born. His older brother, Kristoffer, played, too, and Backstrom would latch onto him and his friends for nightly informal games, spurred on by the more mature competition. He started playing for the Valbo team on an outdoor rink at age 4, practicing every day from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then again after dinner until midnight.
“He was very dead serious on what he did,” said Peter Gustafsson, who was Backstrom’s first coach. “I mean, he always had fun, but he was always dead serious when he did something. And if we messed up, he got really annoyed — not with teammates, mostly with himself. He’s always been that way.
“And he was very, very shy. He hardly spoke to anyone.”
What no one outside of Backstrom’s family knew was that he spoke with a slight stutter, something that persists to this day. It made him more thoughtful about his speech because certain letters and sounds were more difficult than others. Even now, he speaks slowly, as if considering each word before he says it.
“Because sometimes I want to say one thing, and I know I can say it, but sometimes I start to stutter, so I have to redo the phrase,” he says. “I’m not shy. I just pick my spots.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be in a live interview and it happens, but it is what it is.”
After Backstrom’s first season playing for Brynäs’s top team, he was invited to be on a Swedish television show for kids. “He was so nervous, and it was difficult for him to talk,” his father recalled. Backstrom says he didn’t stutter, but he fumbled a word, adding the last syllable after a pause. It became something of a meme with friends good-naturedly ribbing him over it.
“That’s been a big thing for many years,” Backstrom says. “I just missed a letter and just added it afterwards. It ended up being pretty funny. That’s been popular on YouTube.”
He’s come out of shell with age; those who know him best describe Backstrom as one of the humblest people they’ve met, but also quick-witted with a dry sense of humor. Though his 30th birthday was in November, his family threw him a surprise party in Sweden this summer. He and his cousin used to stay up late and sing together as kids, so the two were coaxed into karaoke. The next morning, he regretted that Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky had posted video of his vocal stylings to Instagram, which was picked up by Washington hockey blog Russian Machine Never Breaks.
At the suggestion that not many people know much about him outside of his ability on the ice, Backstrom shrugs.
“That’s a good thing, right?”
Backstrom would ride his bike to Gavlerinken Arena when he was a kid, too. Anders became the Brynäs general manager, so Backstrom went to every game with his dad until he started playing in the top division at 16. He points to a section of red seats at the corner of the rink where he sat and studied his idols, memorizing everything from players’ equipment to their tendencies on the ice and warm-up routines.
“I don’t know, I was just working my brain,” he says.
His growth spurt didn’t come until he was 17, so he was considerably smaller than the 30-somethings with whom he was playing at the time. Anders recalled a Swedish junior national team coach calling Backstrom and suggesting he make some “other choices in food and drinks.”
Backstrom, who’s listed today at 6-foot-1, realized that if he couldn’t yet physically stand out, then he’d have to do so another way: “I knew I had a good hockey sense and lived off that.”
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently recalled how Backstrom was put through a series of trials the summer the organization drafted him in 2006 with the fourth overall pick. Anything he did on the ice was considered average. His shot speed didn’t stand out, his skating wasn’t notable. But then he was administered a computer test that measured his vision and reaction speed. His scores were in the top percentile. For a player considered highly skilled, it’s his mind that makes everything else look extraordinary.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that’s my strength,” Backstrom says. “I mean, I’m not a fast skater, but when I was younger I always wanted to be a smart player and try to read my opponent.”
Backstrom compares it to playing poker, though with him it might be more like chess. Former Capitals coach Barry Trotz once said Backstrom’s “panic circle is very tight” — in split-second decisions he can evaluate his best option on a play and how to trick defenders into thinking he’s choosing something else. Especially as the league has gotten faster, Backstrom often seems to be moving in slow motion, though he’s already thinking several steps ahead on the ice. From either playing against them or just watching, Backstrom catalogues every NHLer, maintaining a mental Rolodex of each one’s strengths and weaknesses to use against them in the future.
One area in which he has undisputable natural talent: his crisp passing. But even that took work to perfect. Some kids loved the feeling of scoring goals, but Backstrom says he “always loved seeing pucks fly” with a well-executed saucer pass. The more he could elevate the puck on a feed, the less hope an opposing defenseman had of getting to it.
“You want to know about the passing?” he asks. “It’s all about the positioning, I think. I’m always looking at the positioning on the other player. For example, on a two-on-one — let’s say I’m on a two-on-one with Ovi — I always look at the defenseman’s stick. Where he is, what’s he going to do — if he puts it down on the ice or if he’s holding it higher, like if I can use the ice in between his stick and legs.”
Backstrom and Ovechkin were inseparable for their first decade together on the ice, the reserved Swedish playmaker perfectly complementing the gregarious goal-scoring Russian. Off the ice, it was a stark contrast in personalities. While Ovechkin’s personal life often played out on social media — most memorably, he was photographed wearing sunglasses upside down at a private party on a boat in 2010 — Backstrom kept a lower profile, rarely seen or heard from outside of games. Together they repeatedly failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs, and though it was Ovechkin who took most of the criticism as team captain, it weighed just as heavily on Backstrom.
“It was obviously frustrating every year when you go back in the summertime thinking, what happened?” he says. “What can we do better? Even if it’s your offseason, you’re still thinking about it. What could we do better? Why are we not going past the second round? Why are we doing this?”
Washington won its first Stanley Cup with the franchise cornerstones playing apart from each other. Ovechkin was paired with offensive center Evgeny Kuznetsov while Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie became a shutdown duo that got matched against opponents’ top forwards.
Backstrom has scored at least 18 goals and 70 points in each of the past five seasons, so it’s not like his offense is suffering. But two-way play has been his personal project since he admired it in former teammate Sergei Fedorov’s game. Backstrom has two years left on his contract and recognizes that the older he gets, the more defensive diligence will become part of his role. It’s the direction in which the Capitals are moving, too, with commitment in their own zone the biggest change in their recent championship run.
“And we take that as a challenge,” Backstrom says. “I mean, how good would it feel just to shut the top guy down?”
His weekend with the Stanley Cup coincides with Gävle’s annual festival, not so unlike American state fairs with booths of fried goodies and carnival rides. Britney Spears and the Goo Goo Dolls have separate concerts in town, too. But it’s the news of Backstrom’s appearances with the trophy that dominates local radio and the newspaper that week. It’s a day Backstrom has been longing for since legendary Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom first brought the Stanley Cup to Sweden in 1997.
“Back then, you had a dream, and now the dream has come true,” Backstrom says.
Center of attention
Backstrom is back at Gavlerinken Arena two days later. With the Stanley Cup resting on the floor of the locker room, Backstrom points out how he sat in the goaltender’s stall in the corner his first season with Brynäs. He walks over to a plaque with his father’s name on it, commemorating the team that won the Swedish League championship in 1980. Anders used to joke that he was the only one in the family with a trophy.
“I finally have a bigger one now,” Backstrom says.
“The only thing I wanted before I retire is at least one Cup. But after winning, I’d love to have more.”
Backstrom addresses the crowd with a microphone in hand both in Gävle and in Valbo the next day. He’s nervous each time, but self-assured, pacing as he blinks back tears while delivering his remarks. The introductions are grand with dramatic music ushering him and the Stanley Cup onto the ice.
But as he poses beside the trophy for hours of photos, greeting each person a handshake, the proceedings feel intimate. Backstrom has quick conversations with some people he recognizes, and despite standing in the center of an especially cold rink, he’s not in a rush.
Everyone here knows him.