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Patient Backstrom ready for first start in more than 14 months

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames



CALGARY, AB
-- Niklas Backstrom has waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

And with saintly patience, Backstrom will wait no more.

He’ll start. Sunday. Against the Montreal Canadiens.

For the first time since Jan. 13, 2015.

“It’s fun,” said Backstrom, whose last game as a member of the Minnesota Wild, a 7-2 drubbing more than 14 months ago that saw the 38-year-old pulled from his crease, and relegated to third-string duty behind Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper until a trade to the Calgary Flames three weeks ago liberated the goaltender.

“Playing… that’s the most fun part about his game and you want to go out there and compete and compete against other teams but compete against yourself too to see where you are. For sure it’s fun to have a date now.”

And a location. The Bell Center.

For sure some days are easier than other days but I’m still in a locker room with guys that play in the NHL and that’s a privilege, that’s a dream come true.Niklas Backstrom

Where ironically, or fittingly enough, Backstrom tended twine for the Western Conference at the NHL All-Star Game in 2009.

“He still wants to play,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “As soon as we made the trade we sat with him and he doesn’t want to retire, he wants to keep playing. He came in with a great attitude, lots of energy, lots of work on the ice, in the gym. He works relentlessly so we felt that we needed to be honest with him also and that’s why he’s going to get the start in Montreal.”

But Backstrom, who made his Wild debut in 2006 and is the team's career leader with 194 victories and 28 shutouts, has seen his road roughen since his only All-Star appearance.

Injuries haven’t helped.

Backstrom has undergone surgeries for maladies including a torn labrum in his hip, two sports hernias and an ankle injury, on top of a torn triceps that pressed on a nerve that disturbed his fingers last summer.

But the biggest battles have been mental.

“The longer you play you see different things,” Backstrom said. “It’s part of the game and at the end of the day it’s not about you, it’s about your teammates, and I think that’s the mental part back in Minnesota and here is that the teammates have been really great to me and made me feel part of the team and tried to help me any way they can.

“For sure some days are easier than other days but I’m still in a locker room with guys that play in the NHL and that’s a privilege, that’s a dream come true. You enjoy everyday. For sure it’s more fun when you play but still you play in the best league in the world and you play a great sport so you try to enjoy it.”

No moment will be more enjoyable for Backstrom than Sunday night.

It’s where the work he’s put in, and the patience he’s shown, will pay off.

All the practice, all the shots, all the extra work put into earning another shot will give way to a sense of accomplishment.

“I think that’s the goal is to be ready all the time,” Backstrom said. “If I get a chance and when I get a chance and to finally get that for sure it’s fun. It’s been a long way and to even just play that one game it’s going to make all the sacrifices worth it. It’s going to be fun for sure but on the other hand you want to do everything you can to play as well as you can and that’s the biggest thing and that’s what I’ve got to focus on to be as sharp as I can be.”

His time in Calgary, albeit limited to practice and a backup stint to fellow goaltender Joni Ortio in Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, has helped.

A new environment, and added crease time in skates, has allowed Backstrom to keep his goal in mind.

“It’s always something new so it’s a change,” Backstrom said. “I think mentally it’s been good to see something new. Everyone here has really welcomed me and done a great job -- the players, staff, coaching staff has helped me. It’s been fun and it’s been a fun two weeks. It’s gone by fast. For me it’s one day at a time and for sure it’s a different situation for me than in my past years.

“I haven’t played in a long time so you try to do everything as well as you can. The things you can control you know when you get a chance in a practice you try to be ready and when you get the chance to play you have to find a way to be ready.”

And with a 14-month layoff, Backstrom’s ready.

Ready to start.

Ready to resume his NHL career.

But not ready to start thinking too far ahead.

Not even about his first start since early 2015.

“It’s fun to know it’s going to happen but on the other hand too it’s still one day at a time,” Backstrom said. “It’s still about today and then you move on to tomorrow. It’s one day at a time and you can’t really look too far ahead, just take small steps and work everyday and when the game comes, it comes.”

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