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Hockey Fights Cancer strikes deep chord with Backlund

With his friend Victor Engstrom in mind, Mikael Backlund has aligned himself with multiple causes supporting cancer research and treatment

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

CALGARY, AB -- They were close back then, starting at age four or five, in Vasteras, on the shore of Lake Malaren, 100 kilometres west of Stockholm.

Just two sports-minded kids who hit it off, living 10 minutes apart by bike.

The type of kinship that supersedes nationality or demographic profile; that could've been struck anywhere, in any city or town or neighbourhood in any country you care to name.

"He was my oldest friend,'' says Mikael Backlund reflectively. "We played soccer together. Both our dads were coaches.

"He played a little bit of hockey with me. For two years we were on the same team. But he liked other sports better.

"When we grew up, we didn't see each other that often. That happens. But when we did, nothing had changed.

"We shared a lot of memories. It wasn't like our whole lives we were hanging out every minute of every day but he was always there.

"I could call him anytime, about anything.

"A great guy."

Three years ago, Victor Engstrom died of liver cancer.

"At the funeral,'' recalls Backlund, "the church was packed, 1,500 people. Just an impact person in the community. We were, like, 24 years old when he passed away. Way too young.

"He was a pro bandy player. On the side, he helped out teaching at his old school, Grade one to nine, in sports or with kids that needed extra help.

"He was always there.

"Kids loved him. Everybody loved him."

Friday night, the Calgary Flames salute Hockey Fights Cancer. Millions of lives are affected in very personal ways by cancer, and Backlund is only one example.

On the day Engstrom passed away, July 1st, by chance Backlund was setting up his own page on the Kids Cancer Care website to help raise money for his pal.

"I got the call two hours later. I mean, you think you're prepared for anything, but …"

Back home in Sweden, he decided to enter the Ride For Hope bicycle race in Victor's memory, and ended up raising $23,000 for cancer research.

The following year he and five other close friends of Engstrom's started a fundraising initiative in Vasteras, and have collected approximately $70,000 in donations since the summer of 2014.

Here in Calgary, the 27-year-old centreman and his girlfriend Frida work on behalf of the Kids Cancer Care Foundation (and are also heavily involved with the ALS campaign), attending a variety of organizational events over the course of the hockey season.

For the March 5th game at the Scotiabank Saddledome against the NY Islanders, the couple have arranged for 25 tickets be distributed to kids with cancer and their parents.

"Just trying to do what I can to help cheer them up,'' says Backlund. "For me, it's always fun to hang out with kids. But it's tough, too. They've been going through treatment, some of them.

"No matter what they've been going through, though, they're always happy and excited to come and watch a a game, which is so great to see.

"As I said before, Victor was so great with kids, so this is a good way to remember him. In sports or at the school, he always was there to help, so how can I not be?"

Once again, this summer the nearness of the disease was brought home once again.

"My dad's girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer,'' Backlund says quietly. "She's battling with it every day. She only has one more chemo treatment left, has done five already.

"It's a grind for her every time after a treatment: She lays in bed, then starts feeling better for a week and a half, then back to treatment and she feels awful again.

"It's been really tough on her and very hard on my dad." 

In 2014, Mikael Backlund received the club's Ralph Scurfield Humanitarian Award in recognition of his charitable efforts.

Not that he looks upon the time he devotes to them as anything out of the ordinary, something worthy of applause.

"Cancer affects so many people. That's the thing. It can affect anybody's life, any family. I'm just trying to do a little bit to help."

Always, he reminds you, there are the memories of his oldest, dearest friend, only a 10-minute bike ride away and those never-to-be-forgotten times spent on the soccer pitches and hockey rinks of his youth, back home in Vasteras.

"I try to follow Victor's example,'' says Backlund. "I think about him often. He taught me a lot.

"He was a happy guy.

"He loved life. We all have bad days or rough times, but then I think of him and that's what I try and take away from it:

"Enjoy life.

"As much as you possibly can and be thankful for what you have."

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