Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom walked up the stairs at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility — together, like always. They were headed to yet another photo shoot, a routine they had down like clockwork.
Ovechkin, a 36-year-old Russian star, is described by former and current teammates as loud, flashy and boisterous. Backstrom, a 34-year-old from Sweden, is described as quiet, laid-back, thoughtful and composed.
“Opposites attract,” former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.
“You can’t help but talk about both of them in the same breath,” said Karl Alzner, their former teammate. “They go hand in hand.”
“It’s very rare, and we’re very fortunate to be in the same organization for this long,” Backstrom said. “We know everything about each other inside out. Just very fortunate to play like this for this long.”
Boudreau, who was the first coach to play Ovechkin and Backstrom on the same line during the 2008-09 season, described the pair as like “husband and wife.” When he coached them, he recalled, most days they would chat, going back and forth. Other days, they needed their own space.
“There would be times when Nick would roll his eyes when Ovi would be doing stuff, but in the end, they knew where their bread was buttered,” Boudreau said. “They know each other better than two guys know anybody, and so it always came back to them. Just two amazing players.”
The duo don’t play on a line together every night, but when they do, their chemistry is undeniable. Ovechkin is a goal scorer. Backstrom is a playmaker known for his passing. When both are on the ice, they create a difficult challenge for opponents.
Mike Knuble, who played in Washington from 2009 to 2012, said he remembers facing the pair in the Stanley Cup playoffs while he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I was just like, ‘I just can’t keep up with these guys,’ ” Knuble said. “They play on a different level, and when you play against them you almost feel helpless against them as a player. It’s a bad feeling. Love it when they are on your team.”
Ovechkin and Backstrom’s opposite personalities complement each other well. Alzner, who was drafted by the Capitals and spent nine seasons with Washington, called them perhaps one of the best duos in NHL history because of their contrasting skills and characteristics. Alzner said Ovechkin is more “in your face,” while Backstrom is more “wait in the weeds” before throwing in his comments here and there.
“They are a perfect combo,” Alzner remarked.
In team meetings or closed-door sessions after bad games, Alzner recalled, the same situation would pop up. Ovechkin typically would start with a loud message, then Backstrom would usually follow it up with more reserved comments along the same lines. They took different approaches but had the same goal.
“Two totally different kind of ways of messaging and certainly on the ice two different types of players,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “I think that helps with consistency with the team and made their relationship pretty special. Two guys from different countries playing two completely different ways on the ice and come together to have such special careers with each other.”
“Alex, I think he just loves life, very charismatic, unique in so many ways,” center Lars Eller said. “It seems like he never has a bad day in his life. He just always comes in cracking jokes, laughs at himself, laughs at others, doesn’t seem to ever be worried. . . . Nick is one of those guys that doesn’t need to be loud to be heard.”
Knuble pointed out that neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom has expressed any outward animosity toward the other and neither has felt as if he needed to be the only one in the spotlight. They have shared their triumphs in Washington, embracing every step. They also have helped grow the game in the District.
“We are all getting to the age where our kids are roped into the second generation of crazy Caps fans, and not that there wasn’t fans before Ovi and Nick got here, but I think it became popular and more of a family tradition,” Carlson said.
Off the ice, Ovechkin said he can tell when Backstrom is in a good mood or bad mood and vice versa. They might not spend as much time together outside of the rink as when they were younger, but their bond is still apparent.
After a recent photo shoot, they fielded questions about their time in Washington. They again had similar answers but different ways of arriving there. When asked what was the best compliment each could give the other, the answers were simple.
“You’re so beautiful, man,” Ovechkin said as he turned to face Backstrom.
“You’re so cute,” Backstrom responded. Then they burst out laughing and walked down the hall, together again.