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Centre's tough path to the NHL helped him succeed

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GeorgejohnsonCH /

The usually affable Jim Playfair in full vent mode is a man to be afforded a wide berth (for verification, see YouTube video of his double-stick-break, gasket-blowing tirade of March 27, 2010).

"He was this close to my face,'' Mikael Backlund is recalling, holding the palm of one hand up to touch the tip of his nose. "And he was yelling at me. I mean, yelling at me.

"I don't know how long it lasted. Felt like 10 or 15 minutes.

"'Spoiled! Never make it to the NHL!' All that. He really ripped into me.

"I was devastated."

By his own admission, Backlund was at the time a tad on the, uh, heavy side, and had been "cheating" on his weight since the season began.

He and the rest of the Abbotsford Heat had just concluded the 2009 AHL Christmas break, the then 20-year-old Swedish first round pick enjoying a visit from home, his mom Ann-Mari and older sister Malin, highlighted by a five-day holiday trek out to Whistler, B.C.

"Saying goodbye to them,'' he remembers, "was tough."

Flying to Winnipeg to face the Manitoba Moose on Dec. 27, Playfair's first order of post-holiday business was a weigh-in.

The first-year pro didn't pass muster, triggering the memorable summons into the coach's bunker.

"When I got back to the hotel, I just wanted to cry,'' admits Backlund. "But I had roommates, so it was tough. You never cry in front of roommates, right? Unwritten rule.

"At that moment, I felt like: 'I'm outta here.' That was as close as I came to leaving.

"But my family, the people I always turn to when I need help or encouragement, just told me: You're not coming home.

"I just had to get better."

Jan Backlund, Mikael's dad, remembers that fish-or-cut-bait moment well.

"I told him,'' says Jan, "to stay, practice harder and show them how good you are."

Given the essential worth of Backlund to the overall well-being of the Flames these days, the very idea of his leaving - for anywhere, for any reason - seems utterly preposterous.

Nowadays, as the third-longest tenured Flame in terms of games played in the colours, he's leaned on, looked to, counted upon.

Whether that means scoring twice in 13 seconds to gut the Florida Panthers, arranging Johnny Gaudreau's OT exquisite give-and-go winner at Ottawa, sniping in the extra-five minutes himself to slay the Devils in Jersey recently, being the fulcrum of Calgary's most consistent line or vying for the team scoring lead while going Jofa-to-Jofa against the most lethal centres on the planet - Sedin, Crosby, Toews, McDavid.

Yet his road to acceptance, to a sense of purpose and belonging, has been with paved with dips and detours, not glistening yellow bricks.

As recently as 2013, remember, the 24th pick in the 2007 NHL Draft ranked a floundering fourth on Calgary's pivot pecking order. Old pro Matt Stajan, precocious teenager Sean Monahan and newly-acquired Joe Colborne had, it seemed, all left him dawdling at the start line.

By late November, Backlund was apparently a featured product on the NHL's in-house Home Shopping Channel, his name being cast hither and yon into the howling trade winds.

"You can't help but wonder 'What if it happens?','' Backlund admitted at the time, following a practice out at WinSport. "'What do I do with my place?'

"Things like that are going through my head a little bit. It's only human nature."

Fast-forward three years, to today.

"That moment in my career … it does feel far away now,'' says the older, wiser version, referencing the not-so-long-ago uncertainty. "That's probably the only time I actually ever thought I might get traded.

"It was a tough start. I worried. But after a while, I decided to enjoy myself, have fun, let go and just play. We left on a road trip out east and I went 10 games without being on for a goal against and started feeling good about myself, then had a stretch after Christmas where I had 20 (points) in 20 (games).

"I got to play with Cammy (Mike Cammalleri), too, which helped.

"Then I had a good meeting with Burkie at the end of the season and he said there was no way they were trading me."

On this night, the Flames are at New Jersey to continue their 2017 playoff push. Puck-drop is 5:30 p.m. in the Garden State, 7:30 in Calgary and - fire up the coffee maker for a few cups of Gevalia dry roast - 1:30 a.m. in Sweden.

"Oh, yes, I'll watch the match,'' says Jan, who works for European industrial giants Siemens AG. "I have seen 52 of the 53 matches he's played (missing only the opener while on a golfing trip in Spain), even though they're in the middle of the night here.

"The other years he played I was nervous all the time. But now I'm relaxed.

"He's more comfortable in the game. He holds the puck more and sees the game better now."

The son wishes the father would just work the PVR magic.

"I don't want him stressed at work and then staying up all night watching games,'' protests Backlund. "A couple years ago he had a small stroke. But he said: 'It doesn't matter, alarm or not, if there's a game, I'll be up, anyway.'

"Earlier in my career I'd get a text or a call the next day, after every game, going through what I could do better. This year it's more of a 'Good job.' I get a lot of thumbs-up/happy face emojis now.

"That's nice.

"I always look forward to those texts. I always wonder what he thought about my game."

As a kid, says mom Ann-Mari, young Mikael was a Zorro and Teenage Mutant Ninja afficianado. He spent his entire hockey upbringing playing in his birthplace of Västerås, a central Swedish city of 100,000 located 110 kilometres west of Stockholm.

"My dad has been pushing me,'' says Backlund, "but not in a bad way. He tried to tell me when I was 10 to 13 or so to do push-ups and sit-ups at night and I'd just laugh. 'I'm not gonna do that.'"

In his mid-teens, Backlund, also a soccer striker/midfielder growing up, decided to go hockey-specific.

"When he was 15, 16, he took a big step,'' recalls Jan. "That's when he started thinking seriously about the NHL. He had a strong focus, all the time.

"I looked at a videotape this week. I think he was three and a half, something like that, and he'd just started skating.

"He's come a long way since then."

Ann-Mari, too, has gotten more at ease with watching her son on the job.

"Not tough anymore,'' she concurs. "Seven, eight years ago it was tough because he was my little boy. Now, it's good. This is the best season for him.

"When he was younger, he was always playing with the guys who were one or two years older than him. He was a good player from the beginning.

"I can't remember what age he was, but he always told me he wanted to be like the Finnish guy, Teemu Selanne. (Ann-Mari hails from Tammerfors, Finland). That was Mikael's big hero."

"When he left (for WHL Kelowna), it was very hard because he was so young. But he lived with a family there and that made it easier on all of us, knowing he was being looked after."

Backlund's junior coach in Västerås (and later at a world championship), Johan Tornberg, remembers a highly-motivated, slightly-stubborn, singularly-driven teenager.

"As a junior, he was very determined about playing in the NHL,'' Tornberg recalls. "His mindset was NHL all the time. NHL. NHL. Nothing else. Even when he was 15 years old.

"He was captain of the team, he drove the team, but his mindset was all the time NHL.

"So at first he had trouble being 'the' guy. That guy the others look up to.

"Not because he was a cocky player or person. Not because he was selfish. No. Because he was just SO determined.

"If we were behind late in a game, or trying to close a game, he was always the guy standing up, watching over his shoulder at me: 'Let me play. Hey coach, I'm here. I'm here. Get me out there.' And he was so p--ed off when I didn't put him on the ice. He was kicking on the bench, slashing sticks. 

"But I liked that side of his personality.

"It's like taming the dog. Just let him be, just let him be. He'll learn."

After being drafted out of Kelowna, Backlund's first full season pro was spent mainly in Abbotsford with the American league Heat - 54 games worth - yielding a modest 32 points.

Acclimatization to the demands of the pro game often take time. Which brings us full circle to the infamous weigh-in/call-in/dressing-down of memory.

"I do remember it,'' says Playfair, now associate coach of the Arizona Coyotes. "I remember how much it bothered me because I liked Backs so much.

"He'd put so much dedication into the summer time. He wouldn't drink. He came over here to Canada to train. He was dedicated, did everything he could to be an NHL player.

"Then when he reaches the American League, you've got to play him, and it almost seemed like: 'I've come this far. It's probably good enough.'

"Well … no.

"Probably is never good enough.

"He wanted to play in the NHL as much as anyone I've ever coached in the American Hockey League. But I was seeing that his winter dedication wasn't equivalent to his summer dedication.

"I felt I had to shake him up.

"My message, what I wanted to make him aware of, was: those summers don't matter if this is how you're going to ruin your winters."

Message received.

Not that all the tumblers clicked immediately into sequence. The rise of Backlund into a front-line NHLer only really began to take flight during a career-high 47-point 2016-2017 season in which his defensive responsibilities also continued to grow.

This year, when Flames' incoming coach Glen Gulutzan experimented by partnering Backlund with the dependable Michael Frolik and truculent rookie Matthew Tkachuk on a line, he hit collaborative paydirt.

Backlund's willingness to play the entire length of the ice, his diligence in mastering the defensive of the puck, has always been the anchor of his trade.

"As a coach,'' says Tornberg, "if you ask him to go out and compete against the best players on the other team, I know he's going to get so motivated.

"I think being around players like (Henrik) Zetterberg at Olympics and World Championships has really helped Mikael to understand that you don't have to have 100 points to be good, even great.

"He doesn't always just want to be the best player. He wants to compete against the best players. His mindset is: 'Getzlaf? He didn't get a goal tonight. Perfect.'"

As someone accustomed to being entrusted to slap handcuffs those glitterati names, Backlund is uniquely qualified to rate degree of difficulty.

"The toughest, for me? Pavel Datsyuk,'' is his instantaneous reply. "So skilled. I think they've clipped it out by now but my friend found it one time on YouTube: I'm killing a penalty against Detroit, I'm swinging my stick back and forth, Datsyuk gives it a lift, passes the puck to (Nicklas) Lidstrom and one-timer, goal.

"I looked pretty bad.

"But I guess he made a lot of guys look bad.

"With him gone now, I'd say Crosby and McDavid are the the hardest to play against."

For Backlund, the push for acceptance extended outside his working environment.

"Lots of people doubted him, even here in Sweden,'' confesses Tornberg. "In the papers, when he was picked for World Championships, there were things written like: 'Oh, there has to be a lot of greater players than Mikael Backlund.'

"When he sees that, his compete level rises. Then he's going after it. That's the maturity of his game. 

"I'm very glad about his way of playing, about his way of taking the adversity and playing the type of role he does. 

"It's a big pleasure to watch people grow up and reach their potential.

"Over the years, when he comes back home in the summer, he's the same guy. Same person. Always gives me a big hug, always talks about hockey.

"He's got to be so proud. 

"We're so proud."

When asked what he's aiming for from here to the finish line in this, his finest NHL season, Backlund's answer is immediate and emphatic.

"Playoffs,'' he replies. "None of it means much if you don't make it to the playoffs.

"Back (in '15) … the city turned crazy. The rink was as loud as its been since I've been here. Everywhere, hockey. My top moment in my pro career. I'd love to go back to, to experience that again.

"So much fun."

Backed by the support of his family, girlfriend Frida, as well as Swedish agents Peter Werner and Claes Elefalk, the trust of his coach and teammates as well as growing adulation from a whole city of admirers, being Mikael Backlund is pretty darn sweet right about now.

There's even been some richly-warranted Selke Trophy candidacy chatter building.

"There is no definite timetable for any player,'' reminds Playfair. "He came along at his own pace.

"He's a great story because when such a good person becomes a good player, well, that's what we all want to see.

"He'll be an NHLer for the rest of his life, have a solid career.

"And you just know he'll never allow his game to drop off. It's taken him too long to get here, to reach the level he's playing at now."

These days, no worries, coach: Backlund's winters are every bit the equal of his summers.

"Looking back,'' Backlund reflects, "there have been some tough times in my career.

"Up until I was 17, I just went up, up, up. As a kid, you think it'll never stop. Then in my draft year, I got hurt, jumper's knee. All of a sudden I hit a wall. Had to deal with my first injury. Slid down in the (draft) rankings.

"Then I went through the ups and downs in Abbotsford and here in Calgary."

A resigned shrug.

"We'd all like to be lights-out right away.

"But the struggles have made me stronger mentally. I know there's more to life than hockey.

"The tough times have helped me become the player and person I am today. 

"I think I appreciate the game more now. I don't take anything for granted.

"I'm really happy where I'm at."

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