The day before his daughter’s first birthday, a milestone he neglected to mention, Nicklas Backstrom considered how fatherhood had further mellowed an already reclusive career. Years ago, when he first broke into the NHL, the Capitals center would return home after games, sit before a computer and read stories. He needed time away from hockey, breaks from the game that consumed the quiet 20-something superstar, but the game was all that existed.
“That’s been my toughest part,” Backstrom said, “because sometimes you need to think about something else.”
Then came baby Haley, born Oct. 8, 2013, not long into Backstrom’s seventh season with Washington. Afternoons turned into trips to the local park, where Haley giggled on the swings, because she hadn’t yet begun to walk or climb the jungle gyms. Her smiles offered a balm for the tough days. She helped Backstrom withdraw even further from public attention, if that even seemed possible.
“Once you have that,” forward Jason Chimera said, “there’s nothing better in the world.”
Backstrom’s story had remained static since he arrived stateside, a baby-faced teenager from Sweden, in the mid-2000s, drawn to the shadows of a sport played beneath bright lights. Consider his trademark power-play spot, along the right half-wall. Consider his supreme patience, how he holds the puck so long that the crowd grows agitated. Then consider the passes that follow, threaded between skates and sticks, space opened by a slight shift of the eyes, or a swivel of the hips.
Now consider the alternate captain’s clout inside the locker room, where his presence attracts little more than a handful of cameras and recorders after any given practice but demands a level of respect rippling across the wooden stalls. He has tweeted twice in the past 35 days. One apologized for previous posts that “must have been a virus.” His commercial appearances are limited to GEICO spots, because a close friend handles the shoots. Yet the Capitals consider him their heartbeat, their rock, the stabilizing force whose 172 assists since 2007 rank first in Washington and ninth in the NHL, who now stands six points from 500.
“I think he’s the guy who makes this team run,” forward Troy Brouwer said.
“I’ve seen a lot of people play,” Chimera said, “and he’s up there with one of the best players in the world.”
“I’ll tell you,” Coach Barry Trotz said, “both ends of the ice, he’s as good as anybody I’ve seen.”
Over coffee last June, one week into his tenure helming the Washington bench, Trotz marveled at the side of Backstrom’s game that diligent film study had revealed. At the time, Trotz dubbed Backstrom the Capitals’ best all-around player, a sentiment carried onto the eve of the regular season, when Trotz began a public campaign for a skater whose NHL awards list includes all-rookie honors, a second-place Calder Trophy finish for rookie of the year and not much else.
“How he hasn’t been recognized as a Selke [Trophy] candidate a little bit more often is sort of astounding to me,” Trotz said, referring to the award given to the most defensive-minded forward. “I’ll be pounding that drum, so that was my first pound on the drum. I think he’s as complete a player as there is in the National Hockey League. I think the world of him and I don’t know him that well.”
For that, we turn to Backstrom’s countrymen, the fellow Swedes who know him best. Earlier this week, Backstrom and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis entered the practice facility together. They hugged, and Backstrom told Leonsis, “I’ve got a beautiful baby girl. And now I’ve got a beautiful baby boy.”
He was referring to Andre Burakovsky, the 19-year-old whose innate skills evoke Backstrom comparisons within the organization.
It was no accident that Trotz scheduled Backstrom and Burakovsky together in several preseason games. Burakovsky would eventually win the second-line center battle, and Backstrom will hold the top-line spot all season. Trotz wanted a mentorship to grow, though the seeds already seemed planted and, soon, Burakovsky plans to move into Backstrom’s home.
“That’ll be something special,” Burakovsky said. “It’s going to be like my dad, probably. Everyone look up to him, everyone want to learn how he’s playing and stuff. I think everyone in here, I know everyone in here respect him and love him as a teammate.”
The day before Haley’s first birthday, which they celebrated at the pumpkin patch, Backstrom walked through the gantlet of cameras for Washington’s annual media luncheon. Later, in the kind of quieter moment he enjoyed more, Backstrom leaned onto a table and tried to reconcile the changes of fatherhood with the skater he had always strived to be.
“Understand, understand,” he said, “I’m the person I’m always going to be. I’m just keeping myself in the background. I think at the same time, it’s…yeah…I like that. I don’t mind. I’m just the guy I am, the person I am.”
Here Backstrom stammered, then stopped altogether, like the conversation needed to switch to a topic other than him.
“But we’ve got a good group of guys in the locker room,” he said. “We have fun there.”