By Tom Worgo
Nicklas Backstrom is one of the league’s most prolific passers. He possesses that rare ability to seemingly see a play before it happens. The 29-year-old dished out an NHL-leading 60 assists last year, when he and star teammate Alexander Ovechkin played better than ever in tandem. Backstrom, a native of Sweden, assisted on 33 of the Russian winger’s 53 goals—an impressive 62 percent. Through November of this season, Backstrom had assisted on a 177 of Ovechkin’s 487 career goals.
The six-foot-two, 213-pound Backstrom, a two-time Olympian and first-time NHL All Star this season, is comfortable playing in Ovechkin’s shadow. Ovechkin is extroverted and emotional, thriving in the limelight while Backstrom is cool and prefers the background. Backstrom tends to open up and talk a whole more when the topic shifts from himself to his teammates. He recently sat down for a one-on-one to speak about Ovechkin, the Capitals prospects of capturing a Stanley Cup, his family, and charity work.
Can you explain your relationship and the outstanding chemistry you have with Ovechkin?
The relationship we have. We are really good friends. I think that helps out a lot. We get along off the ice and hang out and stuff like that. It helps a lot on the ice. We have been playing with each other for so long. We know where each other is out there on the ice. Luckily for me, he has the greatest shot I have ever seen.
Does the competitive nature ever come out between the two of you on the ice?
Sometimes, we get mad at each other. We can give each other a little extra boost, too. We have high expectations for ourselves. Some days it doesn’t go our way. So, that’s when we push each other. For me, he’s easy to play with because we have played together for so long. We know each other’s style and I know where he wants the puck, too.
How did you get into playing hockey? Your father Anders played 10 years professionally in Sweden, so he must have been very influential on you?
My dad and my brother played, so it was an easy way into it. My dad was real important when I was a kid. It always helps when you have a dad who played the game professionally and really knows what it’s all about. It’s really nice to have someone to talk to.
Your teammates say you have a low-key leadership style. How would you describe it and is your low-key demeanor part of your Swedish upbringing?
To be honest, I really don’t know. I am who I am. I can’t really change it. So I have always been this way and I like it, too. Is it because I am Swedish or not? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe a lot of players who are Swedish are like this too. I am not really a talker. Maybe I will say something in between periods sometimes. I try to lead by example.
You have gotten credit for helping tutor fellow Swede and 25-year-old Marcus Johansson? Can you describe your relationship with him?
He feels like a little brother and the guys are always chirping about that, too: That he is my little brother. He has developed really well. He is taking steps in the right direction every year. I think he is feeling more comfortable out there every year, too. It’s a good sign. To see what he has done over the last couple of years versus when he got here, he is a totally different person.”
What’s the process you go through having played for five different coaches in eight years?
It’s been like a roller coaster, actually. We have been changing coaches here and there. At the same time, it is what it is to be honest with you. I think a lot of the players have dealt with it pretty well. Hopefully, we can keep these coaches for a while. It would be nice to have the same coach for a couple of years and really get to know the system well to see how far we can get.
Is there an urgency to win now with Capitals bringing in high-profile players Justin Williams and T. J. Oshie during the offseason? Can this team win the Stanley Cup?
I am sure the organization wanted to change a couple of things. I am not sure they are saying, “We want to win now.” But obviously it doesn’t matter who is in the lineup. We still have the same goal. But they are great players and have had a big impact on our team this year. I don’t want to talk about that [Stanley Cup] too early. We look good on paper, but at the same time we have to show it out there.
How has life changed since you and your girlfriend, Liza Berg, had your daughter Haley late in 2013? Can you still spend time with your teammates?
The biggest thing is I don’t think about hockey too much when I am off. That’s nice. You can switch your hockey brain off to family brain. You can just come home and hang out with your daughter. It’s great. It’s tough to hang out off the ice with the guys, but at the same time we go on the road a lot and you get to hang out with the boys. We go to dinner, sometimes play video games and play cards.
What causes do you devote your time to?
It’s a program called So Kids Can. We have been building playgrounds the last six years. There are different projects every year and we do something big every year. I also do something with a kid’s hospital back home in Sweden. Obviously, kids are real important. That’s why I am into these things.