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For children of NHL players, grasping hockey as a job is a lot to process

Capitals center Nick Backstrom and his family wave as they take a boat ride in the Baltic Sea during Backstom's day with the Stanley Cup in 2018. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

When fans stop Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom in restaurants, at the rink or on the street to ask for autographs or photos, he will occasionally turn to his 6-year-old daughter, Haley, to run through a list of questions.

“Why are they doing that?” he will ask his wide-eyed daughter. “Do you know?”

“Yeah, because they love you,” she will respond.

Backstrom will prod more: “But why do they love me? Do you know that?”

Haley, confident as any 6-year-old could be, isn’t stumped: “Yeah, because you play hockey.”

“There you go,” Backstrom says.

For NHL players, explaining what Dad does isn’t always easy. From the constant travel, such as the Capitals’ 10-day road trip that finally ends Tuesday in Toronto, to screaming fans who crowd around the practice rink, to showing up on the same television screens that cartoons do, players and their families have to answer a lot of questions.

So when, exactly, do kids finally understand that their fathers are NHL players? Well, it varies.

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The Capitals have 12 players who are fathers, with Nick Jensen and Nic Dowd expecting their firstborns soon. There are 19 kids across the dressing room, ranging from Radko Gudas’s 1-month-old daughter, Elvira, to Braden Holtby’s 7-year-old son, Benjamin.

Ben and Holtby’s daughter, Belle, 5, are two of the few Capitals children who grasp the concept of their fathers being NHL players, and Ben especially isn’t afraid to tell, well, everyone.

“Definitely some embarrassing moments for us because they’re kids,” Holtby said. “They don’t know; they aren’t scared to announce it sometimes. They don’t understand why Dad doesn’t really want that announced sometimes. I mean, we’re trying to make life as normal as we possibly can.”

The opposite side of the age spectrum is Alex Ovechkin’s son, Sergei, who is just over a year old. Now learning how to walk and talk — his first words (all in Russian) were “mama,” “papa” and “gimme” — Sergei attended his first Capitals game Oct. 14 against Colorado, joining Dmitry Orlov’s first child, Kirill, who is 3 months old. Children such as Holtby’s and Backstrom’s get Ovechkin excited about Sergei’s future.

“I was kind of waiting for that moment when my kid is going to be around with me in the locker room, and as soon as he start to really walk he’s going to be in the locker room with the guys,” Ovechkin said. “The culture that we have here, it is something special, and all the guys love the kids and it is going to be fun for him as well.”

Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said his almost 2-year-old daughter, Reese, has started to equate anything hockey-related to her dad. Over the past couple of months, whenever she sees hockey on television — any team, any player — she will point and say, “Dadda!”

The two were recently at a store called Chapters in Calgary when she saw the Flames’ “C” logo and immediately started saying “Dadda!” Giordano’s 6-year-old son, Jack, is a little more savvy.

“You can tell he sort of thinks he’s the man when I go pick him up at school and other kids recognize who I am, but he’s pretty subtle about it,” Giordano said. “I know he realizes what the other kids are saying, but he doesn’t really react too much, which I think is him trying to play the cool role a little bit. But, yeah, I’d imagine he loves coming to the rink. He wears No. 5 on his hockey team, so he’s all about it, but he keeps it pretty cool.”

St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who is playing his 17th NHL season, has three daughters — the oldest is 6½ — but none is all that interested in the sport. They all see Boumeester’s NHL career as similar to a 9-to-5 job. There are some perks and fun things when they go to games, but because it has been such a way of life, they don’t see it as anything out of the ordinary.

“Kids make you appreciate the position you are in,” Bouwmeester said.

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The Capitals’ Travis Boyd said his 5-year-old daughter, Hayden, is just now starting to “put some stuff together.” There have been a few times when Boyd was being interviewed between periods and Hayden recognized her dad on television.

“She would be like: ‘Wait, what? Why is Daddy on the TV? What is he doing?'” he said. Boyd said he has taken Hayden skating a few times already but is waiting until she becomes more confident on skates to introduce her to hockey. For now, he is just happy she is interested.

Then there is John Carlson’s 4-year-old son, Lucca — who has a 1-year-old brother, Rudy — who tells his friends his dad plays hockey. But, Carlson said, he doesn’t get the whole “hockey is a job” thing.

“He thinks it’s like his tee ball team probably in all actuality,” Carlson said. “He probably doesn’t think I work.”

With the Capitals’ kids at different stages of their learning process, players are, too. Ovechkin said he will probably be turning to Backstrom and Holtby for advice once Sergei is a little older. For now, they are happy with a little banter back and forth in the dressing room, about what their son or daughter did that puzzled them and similarly simple joys.

“We can talk once in a while about the kids or what they do or, you know, how lost we are usually,” Holtby said. “Yeah, but it’s never kind of advice; it’s more just us venting about how much we don’t really know what we’re doing and trying to figure it out along the way.”

More on the Capitals:

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T.J. Oshie worked on creating scoring opportunities this summer. Now, he leads the team in goals.

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