Close-up With Nicklas Backstrom – A Translated Interview

Picture:, from the left: Writer Magnus Nyström, Nicklas Bäckström & Marcus Johansson

The following is in an interview with Nicklas Bäckström, written by Magnus Nyström and published on the Swedish newsite “Expressen“. The article has been translated to English by NoVa Caps’ Sofie Bengsston.  The original article can be found here.

This spring, Backstrom is planning to lead the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup and in the fall he is planning to win the World Cup with the Three Crowns (Sweden). No, he is not backing away from the requirements. Nicklas Bäckström is no longer a shy rookie.

“I will be a leading player. That is what I am getting paid for. And the worst thing I know is people who are putting the blame on others,” says Nicklas.

We also get to know Bäckström’s thoughts about the nightmare in Sochi, why he is often yelling at Alexander Oveckin, how close it was that he ended up in Mora (!) and the feeling of hitting a hole-in-one as a 13-year-old.

Sit-down at the Old Ebbit Grill
We met at a fancy restaurant called “Old Ebbit Grill”, a slap shot from the White House, and I am looking around for Toby Ziegler or a Josh Lyman. Guests that have booked a table are waiting in line, but when Nicklas comes inside, he doesn’t need to wait in line or book a table, a smiling waiter recognizes the guest and leads us to a table right away.

“Did you see the debate on the TV yesterday,” asked Nicklas, meaning the one about the different Republican representatives.

We are talking politics for a little while and he tells me about his two visits to the White House, but tells me that he still hasn’t met President Barack Obama, but would love to do it. He is talking about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and asks me what i think about them.

“The absolute worst thing I know is people that are putting the blame on others. I can’t handle that”

He’s no longer the shy boy from Valbo, who had his World Championship debut as an 18- year-old, who would rather not talk to reporters at all.

Now he also told me that the night before he had read all the lineups for the upcoming World Cup and I wondered which team he got most impressed by.

An 18-year-old Nicklas would have carefully and nicely said all the teams. 28-year-old Nicklas answered right away saying: “Sweden!” It’s me that is trying to note that Canada maybe has to count as a favorite.

“Canada won the latest Olympics, but…it’s going to be interesting. It’s always fun to play with the Swedish national team, we are always having high goals. We are always playing to win. We are not going to Toronto to end up in third place.”

Backström: “The absolute worst thing I know”

Nicklas Bäckström got the most important hockey game of his career taken away from him when he took an illegal substance (allergy medicine) and wasn’t allowed to participate in the Olympic final in Sochi.

There’re even Swedes that are calling Bäckström a cheater (and a few of the angriest once have emailed me a couple of times).  I trust that Bäckström followed the medical staff (Björn Waldebäcks) instructions and it’s worth mentioning that the punishment was a one game suspension.

Bäckström could have been mad at the medical staff, he could be bitter, angry at himself, angry at the entire world. He is not that. He said that he put everything behind him a long time ago. And I believe him.

Nicklas Bäckström is living in the present and is releasing why he’s a leader type on the NHL’s best team for now and why he will be one of the Three Crowns most important players in Toronto in the fall when he repeats the same sentence:

“The absolute worst thing I know is people that are putting the blame on others. I can’t handle that.”

He all of a sudden looks really mad. “If you miss a pass there’s a lot of people that can complain, “why didn’t he skate there?” Or if you let in a goal and players can say: “but I had my player”.  He’s putting down his silverware and puts his hands out in a gesture.
What “I had my player”? We are a team. I’m not buying that kind of talk. I saw that a little bit when I came to Washington my first year. People said “but I did my job”.
“Yes, but you have to work together and have each others backs. That’s how you have to work. And that’s how we are doing it now.”

Bäckström can still tell his teammates when he has to. Even to Alexander Ovechkin.
“Yes, hes the one I’m yelling at the most on the team. We have played together all the years I have been here, most of the time in the same line and im the one he has been yelling at the most. We have had real duels in the booth many times, when we have been standing there and yelled at each other.

You were both mad for real? “Yes, for real.”  What is it usually about? “It usually starts with that fact that one of us has started the game pretty bad, a little sleepy, or not focused, and then you get to hear it – and then you wake up. We have huge respect for each other, we are listening to one another and then goes out and do what we are going to do.

Of Ovechkin’s over 500 goals in the NHL since 2007, Bäckström has assists to half of them. The spectacular Ovechkin gets the biggest headlines, but In the shadows of the biggest star has Bäckström accomplished this:

* He is with his over 470 assists the best when it comes to assist in the Capitals history.
* When it comes to assist in the NHL since 2007 only Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton have more than Bäckström.
* There’s only three players (Peter Forsberg, Sidney Crosby & Jaromir Jagr) since 1990 that have had more assists in their first 600 NHL games than Bäckström.

Nicklas Bäckström is as important for the Washington Capitals as Alexander Ovechkin. It is these two superstars that will decide how it will go for Capitals this spring.

Picture , Nicklas as 16 years old playing for Brynäs

Bäckström: “It has meant a lot”

When Capitals are playing against the Rangers at home at the Verizon Center, both his dad Anders and older brother Kristoffer are sitting up in the middle of the night to watch the game on the TV.

When Ranger’s defender Dan Girardi is playing against Bäckström, with what should be a penalty, the Swede gets rid of the defender. Bäckström is both too strong and too quick for Girardi, and delivers a perfect pass to Ovechkin.

Older brother Kristoffer is smiling in front of the TV. He recognizes what he is watching.

During his entire childhood Nicklas played ice hockey and street hockey with his older brother and his friends. He was already getting strength, roughness and smartness here that he’s still taking advantage of. Nicklas was also one of the smallest on his team when he was young and also late in the development, so he could never stand up physically against the opponents.

“I had to be smarter than them instead,” says Nicklas. He’s still smarter than most of his opponents. He can handle a lot of strength. A lot of the thanks goes to his older brother for this.

“Nicklas was always hanging out with us. It was a good school for him. He had to go the rough path, he never got anything for free. He couldn’t go home and be upset about it, because then he wouldn’t be allowed to join the next time”, says Kristoffer, and admits that he sometimes has been mean against his smaller brother.

Nicklas is smiling when I’m bringing it up. “It was good that I got to play with my brother and his friends and I got to play with older players often. I got to play with the team born in 1983 once, even though I was born 1987. And yes, it went pretty well. I was 10-11 years old. We played against Tierp.”

But you and your brother fought sometimes? “We were competing in everything. And yes.. We were fighting pretty much.”

Were you guys fighting for real? “It happened sometimes, actually. I always lost. We were laying in our rooms after that and were mad for a while, before it was okay again.”

The brothers are still close friends. Kristoffer – has been playing hockey in the Swedish second league with the team Hammarby and has played as a professional in Germany – and is often in DC. He’s proud of his little brother. He knows how hard Nicklas has worked.

It was a lot of sports for the brothers when they grew up and it was very natural for them.
Their dad Anders played many seasons in the Swedish highest league for the team Brynäs and their mum Catrin played in the Swedish championship’s final in handball.

When I asked Kristoffer where Nicklas got his stubborn side from he answered:  “A combination between mum and dad”. The Bäckström family didn’t have the customary Fridays, as a lot of Swedish families do with chips and watching TV. They had to play nights, where they competed in everything from hockey games to board games. “Everybody wanted to win. Nobody wanted to give in.”  Even this was forming Nicklas.
“Mum and dad have meant a lot to me. We were an incredible sport family. They have supported and been there with everything, driving my brother and I around throughout the years, they did so much for us. But it happened that the whole family got grumpy after a game night (when the game got so intense and nobody wanted to lose) and after that we were all sitting in the sofa quiet watching TV.”

“It’s almost impossible to talk to him during the playoffs, he’s completely in his own bubble then”

Your mum was as grumpy as the rest of you? “Yeah, but when the years started passing she got a little more calm than dad at least. And she could bring up the atmosphere. It’s funny to think back at how we could go on.”

Nicklas had his dad Anders as a coach for his young years but it never meant any problems. “Nicklas was so talented and dad was putting the same expectations on everyone: he is hard, says Kristoffer.”

I also realized that dad Anders was behind something that made me very impressed, when I attended and saw the shy Nicklas as a rookie hit back against a kaky player in Philadelphia, a hard environment that broke down a lot of rookies. “You always have to take your place on the ice, it doesn’t work to skate around and hide, that’s something I got from my dad,” says Nicklas himself.

Bäckström: “Nobody knows about it”

Anders and Kristoffer never talked about the Stanley Cup with Nicklas. Even if dad and his older brother are dreaming about seeing Nicklas’ win it and curiously listen when I tell them about others celebrations with Swedes I have been able to witness.  “It’s going very well for Washington now, but when we started talking about the Stanley Cup, then he would be irritated,” says Anders. “It’s almost impossible to talk to him during the playoffs, he’s completely in his own bubble then”, says Kristoffer.

“Of course you’re changing when you become a dad. Haley is the absolute best thing that has happened in my life”

The family has been there for a couple of tough playoff losses throughout the years, but nothing worse than the final day in Sochi. The whole family was sitting in the arena when Nicklas didn’t show up for the warm ups and the chaos started. “I ran down to the booth and asked “Pudding” (Three Crowns staff Anders Weidestål). He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone anything, but told me what had happened. “We were of course shocked”, Kristoffer said.

Anders looks a little hard-set and a little bit sad when he says: “The hardest part was that we weren’t allowed to see Nicklas. He became “locked in”, and then all the players were flying from Sochi that same night. We only had contact over the phone.

Black headlines about the illegal substance wasn’t something anyone counted on after Bäckström five bees in the semi-final against Finland. “But he was handling everything around this really good, he showed a great strength, then he scored a goal in his first NHL game after the Olympics. He was strong before, but became even stronger after that, says Anders.

When Brynäs former coach Leif Boork compared a 16-year-old Nicklas Bäckström with Peter Forsberg, both Anders and Nicklas got irritated and thought it was unnecessary and silly.

Now they both agree that there was grounds for how he compared the two of them, then Nicklas revealed, “Nobody knows about this, but at that time I had to choose to play in Brynäs or Mora, that had Pär Djoos as coach. But we had a meeting with Leif Boork, that I didn’t know anything about. He told me how he saw me. And that I would get the chance to show what I got. I liked the challenge.”

Haley Bäckström was born in October 2013. Nicklas and his girlfriend Lisa became parents for the first time. “Nicklas was almost like a new person when Haley was born. He was almost always in the hockey bubble before. Now he can come home at 2am after a game, but gladly wake up with her at 7am”, says Anders.

Nicklas and I are sitting and talking about kids for a while at the Old Ebbitt Grill. “Of course you’ll change when you become a dad. I have become calmer. I could be bitter and think about a loss a long time after the game but that doesn’t work when you come home to a laughing child. Haley is the best thing that has ever happened in my life.”

Bought any hockey sticks for Haley? “She has a stick and a small goal. But right now she’s more into dolls, haha. And I’m happy that she’s so happy and is doing what she wants to do”.

We talked about being parents and I was wondering what was the best tips he got from his own home? “That they never put pressure on me. If I wanted to talk about what I was doing, I had to start. But when I was a kid they never told me to do this or that.” Unfortunately not all parents are like that, I said. I think unfortunately that a lot of kids get that pressure from the home that the sport isn’t any fun. I get sad when I hear stuff like that.

Bäckström: “I will never forget that”

He has put the Olympics behind him. “The only thing I can think about was that it was sad that I didn’t get to play the final. It wasn’t a fun journey after that. I was sitting together with Niklas Kronwall and talked, I was both sad and mad. That is the worst thing I have been through in the sport.” The best hasn’t happened yet.

I know that he doesn’t want to talk about the Stanley Cup, so I’m letting it go. I bring up his hole-in-one as a 13 year old instead. I don’t think I have ever seen Nicklas this excited as when he started to tell me this story – and we have known each other for over 10 years.

“I love golf and have been playing since I was young. During the summer break my friends and I could hang out at the golf course all day, every day, before it was time for practice at night. The best part? If you play bad – then you have to go back again. If you play good – then it’s so much fun that you have to go back again.

The most fun was a early summer day on a Gävle golf course, number 17. “My dad and I were there. I had the sun in my eyes and I could only see the ball go towards the hole. The ball disappeared, when we got there and it was gone and I thought: “where is the damn ball”. We started to look beyond the green, but then I thought: “maybe” and walked up and looked down the hole, and there was the ball. I was jumping and cheering. I will never forget that.

Interview by: Magnus Nyström
Translated by: Sofie Bengtsson

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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