You won’t read a better D.C. sports story this week than the tale told by Isabelle Khurshudyan. Our Caps beat writer followed the enigmatic Nicklas Backstrom all the way to his childhood home in Sweden in an attempt to tell us something we didn’t know about one of the best players in franchise history. She succeeded. (If you haven’t yet, please read her story.) I wanted to ask her a little more about what she learned for Friday’s DCSB newsletter. This exchange is taken from the newsletter; you can sign up to receive future versions here.
DS: You know Nicklas Backstrom better than almost any of us. What surprised you most from reporting this story?
IK: So, this really goes back to the Capitals' first-round series against the Blue Jackets. The night they won Game 6 to advance to the second round, I was in a media scrum around Backstrom in the locker room. He had been talking for a while, and he sort of got choked up on a couple words. I made some offhand comment about him talking to reporters for so long that he literally ran out of words to say. He responded, “Yeah, it's something I've been dealing with since I was a baby.”
I was pretty taken aback, and the comment stuck with me. I had a feeling he was referring to some sort of speech impediment, but I obviously wasn't sure and it wasn't really the right time to ask. It also just made me think about how little I really knew him. And if I felt that way after spending so much time talking to him over the past three years, then imagine how fans feel. He's so universally beloved despite that.
To answer your question, I was surprised by how open he was when I got to Sweden, both in agreeing to meet with me and what he shared. I asked him about that comment in Columbus, and he didn't hesitate in telling me about his stutter.
“Can I write about that?” I asked him.
“Yeah, of course,” he said.
Maybe he'd just never really been asked before or maybe it was the euphoria over winning the Cup, but for someone who's been so private for so long, he was the opposite in Sweden and allowed me quite a bit of access during his time with the trophy.
DS: There’s that great line where Backstrom says you’ve never seen him like that before. Was he right? How was he different at home?
IK: Well, I think he saw my face when he pulled up to the arena on a bicycle. I was expecting a Mercedes or something. That's definitely the most relaxed I've seen him, and some of that probably has to do with the relief winning brought. He just let his guard down in a way that was very new to me. I think part of it was how excited he was for us to see his hometown.
DS: When we think about the relief from winning the Stanley Cup, we overwhelmingly think and talk about Alex Ovechkin first. Do you think Backstrom feels the relief as much as Ovechkin?
IK: One of the questions I asked Backstrom in Sweden was if he loves winning or hates losing more, and he struggled to choose. (He eventually picked winning.) More so than anyone in the Capitals' locker room over the past three years I've covered it, Backstrom hates, hates, hates losing. He was in a bad mood when I tried to talk to him after a World Cup exhibition game two years ago because Sweden had lost. So, it was definitely as much a relief for him as it was for Ovechkin. Going into last season, the disappointment from the previous year's second-round exit was arguably most evident with Backstrom. You could sense a change in his demeanor and body language. I think it took him 20 games to kind of get past that.
DS: Similarly, all the questions about leadership always came back to Ovechkin. What do you make of Backstrom as a leader?
IK: Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said earlier this week that Backstrom isn’t a “rah-rah” guy, and that sounds about right. I don’t know if Ovechkin really is, either. But Backstrom was the one who called a team meeting when Washington lost the first two games in the 2017 second-round series against Pittsburgh, and he was the one who spoke to the team in the locker room that night. As many know, the Capitals eventually lost in Game 7.
It’s so hard for me to judge leadership because I’m not around in the situations where it would matter most — on the bench, on the ice or in the locker room. But his teammates are smitten with him beyond what he can do in a game, so I trust their judgment.
DS: Probably an impossible question, but this occurred to me with your story publishing the same day as our Anthony Rendon feature. Do you think Backstrom would be more popular, more famous, more celebrated if he did open up more, and do you think he cares? (Note: Please also read this fab Dave Sheinin story about Rendon.)
IK: I can say confidently that he doesn’t care. I remember when Barry Trotz pushed for Backstrom to get some all-star love, and I got the sense Backstrom just kind of wanted to go on his family vacation that week. In Washington, he’s arguably the second-most popular player (behind Ovechkin), so I’m not sure how much it matters locally. But I do think it makes a difference when it comes to national consideration, like awards or Hall of Fame. Maybe his name would be out there more, and it would bring him more recognition.
DS: What was the best food or drink item you consumed in Sweden?
IK: A Swedish hockey journalist, Uffe Bodin, met me in Stockholm before I took the two-hour train ride to Gavle, and he was kind enough to treat me to traditional Swedish meatballs at a restaurant called Pelikan. I think he was a little surprised that I ate all of the big portion.
DS: And what’s your favorite memory from the trip?
IK: I was standing next to Backstrom as he was waiting to be introduced at NickBack Arena (it's literally named after him) in Valbo. He could hear the master of ceremonies introducing him, but he was behind a closed garage door in the zamboni tunnel, and he was so nervous. At one point, he cracked, “Does anyone have any vodka?” It was a moment he'd been dreaming about and waiting for so long, and you just got a real feel for how much it meant to him. He was making me anxious with how he kept rocking from foot to foot waiting for the door to open. By that point, I knew he struggles with a stutter, so I understood how big of a deal it was for him to give this speech in front of all these people from his hometown.
When the door finally came up, it was such a cool scene. He’d invited all of the guys he played with in Valbo from when he was 4 to 14, and they were all on the ice cheering him as he walked out to a standing ovation with this dramatic music. That’ll stay with me for a while.
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