For the second time in as many years, a highly touted teenaged hockey player from Europe has signed an NHL contract to play with the Capitals. The Capitals introduced Nicklas Backstrom
to a good-sized throng of local media at their new practice and office facility here in Arlington, Va. on Monday.
Like Alex Ovechkin
, Nicklas Backstrom
played a season of pro hockey in his home country between the time he was drafted and the time he will start his NHL career. And like Ovechkin before him, Backstrom comes from an athletic family.
Backstrom’s father Anders played professionally as a defenseman in Sweden from 1978-88. He was the New York Rangers’ 10th round draft choice (203rd overall) in 1980, in an era when European players had shown that they were not only capable of playing in the NHL and the World Hockey Association, they were capable of excelling.
“I played with or against Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Calle Johansson, Ulf Dahlen and everyone,” said the elder Backstrom on Monday, naming a trio of former Capitals of Swedish descent. “They were really good guys, every one.
“I played with Inge Hammarstrom too, back in Brynas. The job he did in the NHL broke ground for everyone who came after him. He did a great job.”
It was 1973-74 when the Toronto Maple Leafs brought Swedish defensemen Hammarstrom and Borje Salming to the NHL. A year earlier, the Detroit Red Wings signed Swedish defenseman Thommie Bergman to a contract. Bergman first played in the league in 1972-73, and he was the first Swedish player to spend a full season as a regular in the NHL.
In 1974-75, Bergman jumped to the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets where he, along with countrymen Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg revolutionized the game and paved the way for the hundreds of European-born and trained players who would follow them to North America. The Jets’ freewheeling European style became the model on which the dynastic Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980s were built.
Not long after the Jets started winning Avco Cup championships in the WHA, the NHL scouts began taking notice. In 1976, the California Golden Seals used the fifth overall pick in the NHL Amateur Draft to select Bjorn Johansson, the first player from outside North America to be chosen in the draft’s first round.
| Leif Svensson and Rolf Edberg |
Washington got into the act in June, 1978. Days after Hedberg and Nilsson signed lucrative contracts to jump from the WHA to the NHL’s New York Rangers, the Caps inked Swedish defenseman Leif Svensson and forward Rolf Edberg. The Caps also made their first European Amateur Draft selection that summer, grabbing Bengt Gustafsson in the fourth round (55th overall).
Anders Backstrom was 19 when the Rangers drafted him, the same age Nicklas is now. Anders never played in North America, but his second son is now about to embark on a promising career in the NHL.
“I think Nicklas was just two years old when he had his skates on the first time,” remembers the elder Backstrom. “He had his skates on inside the house, walking on the floor. We opened the door and he walked out on the ground. When he came on the ice, he walked on the ice, too. He learned very early.
“I saw very early that he sees the ice very well. Good sense and good wrists. I think he was about 11 or 12 years old and I could see that he could see the play a couple of seconds before the other guys.”
As Alice Cooper once posited about eighteen-year-olds, they’re simultaneously boys and men. It’s virtually the same for nineteen-year-olds, even those who are mature and who have traveled the globe playing hockey. As a parent, it’s tough to watch your kid leave the nest.
“I don’t think it’s any problem for me, but I think it’s a problem for my wife,” admits Backstrom. “We have decided to go with Nicklas for the first couple of months to help him to start everything with apartments and cars and other things. He can focus on hockey and we can fix the other things behind the ice.”
The Backstroms and their two sons, Nicklas and Kristoffe, have had a whirlwind tour of the area since arriving in the States on Saturday. They’ll do some house hunting before returning to Europe in the middle of the week, but they like what they’ve seen of the area so far.
“I think the days we have been here are great,” he says.”There has been a great hospitality and kindness from the city. We think it is going to be perfect for Nicklas here. It is safe and clean and all the people are very, very nice. We think Nicklas is going to be in good hands.”
Nicklas is going to be in good hands, and he has good hands. The Capitals and the Backstroms are both hoping that Monday is the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship between the player, the team, the city and its fans.