A decade ago, before a trip to Washington carried all kinds of stakes and expectations, the empty, untouched ice made William Nylander feel like a professional hockey player.
He was 11 years old then and his father, Michael Nylander, played for the Capitals. Michael regularly took his sons, William and Alex, to practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. They left their Potomac home extra early so William and Alex could fire pucks at the net before Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of the team took the ice.
Then, before ducking into the ping-pong room or team lounge, William peered through the glass and let his mind wander.
“You see those guys doing it. You look up to them, and you think they are so cool,” Nylander said Saturday morning. “It made me want to get there, and it also made me think it was possible.”
That ambition eventually led Nylander to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team pushing the top-seeded Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nylander, 20, is on the Maple Leafs’ top line with Zach Hyman and rookie sensation Auston Matthews. He has yet to record a point in the postseason, which moves to Toronto with the series tied 1-1, but finished the year with 22 goals and 39 assists.
The rest of it feels a bit surreal — going against Backstrom and Ovechkin, making his playoff debut in the building in which his dad played, doing all he can to mute the crowd he once sat in as a wide-eyed kid with a dream of being on that ice.
“That time in Washington, D.C., is when we really fell in love with hockey,” said Alex Nylander, who is a year younger than William and a Buffalo Sabres prospect. “There was just so much to do, so many players to talk to. It was all right there, and we couldn’t get enough of it.”
Michael Nylander, a journeyman center, played 71 games for the Capitals in 2003 before returning four years later. That is when he started William and Alex in the Team Maryland hockey program run by Bob Weiss. The Nylanders had six kids and were living in a hotel while searching for a suburban home.
But the hotel room was a bit crowded and the house search was slow, so Weiss invited the Nylander family into his home for 2½ months. Weiss, who had lunch with William between Games 1 and 2, remembers him roughhousing in their basement or playing hockey outside. He also remembers setting an extra place at dinner for the honorary member of the Nylander family: a 19-year-old Backstrom.
“Backstrom was a rookie then, and since he was from Sweden, Michael was really showing him the ropes,” Weiss said. “So he was around all the time, and he loved playing with the kids. Every time you turned around, Nick was playing with William, doing something different and just having a great time.”
That didn’t stop when the Nylanders bought their house in Potomac. Backstrom played knee hockey with the Nylander boys, brought them outside to stick-handle in the driveway and had no problem smacking ping-pong balls past their short arms.
When William went to Kettler for practices, it was Backstrom who teased him in the locker room. Ovechkin once gave the Nylanders a game-used stick. William asked the players for hockey tips, went to as many games as he could and, more than anything, itched to be on the ice.
“All those kids wanted to do was play hockey,” Backstrom said of William and Alex. “That’s it. There was nothing else that they wanted to do except skate and shoot and get better. And they got good fast.”
William was always an age group up for Team Maryland, which he played with for two years before his father retired. He immediately stood out for his stick skills and vision, even if most of the players were bigger than him. That continued when he started playing professionally in Sweden as a 16-year-old, and the Maple Leafs selected him eighth overall in the 2014 entry draft. This year, he bloomed into a budding star.
He still isn’t a big forward, at 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, but he always works on maximizing his compact frame. When the Weisses vacationed in Sweden to visit the Nylanders, William spent hours doing off-ice workouts with Michael before calling it a day. Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky, who played on the Swedish junior national team with William, has been most impressed with his combination of skill and speed.
It all has helped Nylander complement Matthews on the Maple Leafs’ top line, though the group has not done much through two playoff games. They mostly have been matched up with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and the Capitals’ second line, but they also have faced Ovechkin, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
That is when Backstrom starts to feel old, a 29-year-old staring down the kid who used to amble through the Capitals’ locker room. It gives Nylander a sense of familiarity that, even with most Maple Leafs clinging to hours of playoff experience, makes it feel as if he has been here before.
And that’s because, in a way, he has.
“Being back here to start the playoffs is a weird, comfortable feeling,” Nylander said. “Because I will always have a tie to this area. I will forever. But now I want to come in and beat the Capitals. I think you can have both of those.”