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Stranger in a strange land

by Dan Rosen

Nicklas Backstrom, who was the fourth-overall selection in the 2006 Entry Draft, so far has showcased the skills that have put him in the running for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
Nicklas Backstrom’s life away from the rink used to be so much more fulfilling.

His friends were a call or short drive away, and his parents weren’t far, either. He knew where he could go to find his favorite dish, chicken and rice. He could give directions to the nearest movie theater, and he probably knew the breaks on the putting greens at the local golf course.

Backstrom isn’t home anymore. Instead, he has gone from a popular figure in his native Gavle, a city in east-central Sweden on the Baltic Sea coast, to living an anonymous life away from the rink in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

“I have a lot of friends at home and you always have something to do there,” Backstrom told “Here, it’s practice and then I go home and watch a movie or something. That’s the biggest difference.”

But when he ventures out to the Verizon Center, Backstrom shows Washington Capitals fans why the team’s brass is so high on him.

The 19-year-old Swede, who was the fourth-overall selection in the 2006 Entry Draft, so far has showcased the skills that have put him in the running for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.

Backstrom, a natural center who has been playing left wing for the Caps, enters tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers tied for fourth among NHL rookies with nine points. He scored his first and so far only NHL goal on Nov. 8 against Ottawa, and registered five assists in his first seven games.

“We’ve been really happy with him,” Washington coach Glen Hanlon said. “He’s not even 20 years old yet and he’s made some great plays.”

Backstrom, though still a teenager, is mature enough to understand his growth as an NHL player includes developing off the ice, too.

For that Backstrom has Michael Nylander, who not only serves as a Capitals center, but also as a father-figure. As a 35-year-old Swede in his 14th NHL season, Nylander already has walked in Backstrom’s shoes.

Sixteen years ago Nylander was a 19-year-old taken in the third round by the Hartford Whalers. Like Backstrom did last year, Nylander chose to spend one more season after the draft in Sweden before making the jaunt across the pond.

“Hockey is played the same way everywhere; once they get to the rink everybody knows what to do,” Nylander said. “The big adjustment is off the ice, and leaving Sweden by himself. It’s always easier if you have another Swedish guy who has been there and done that and knows what to do. If there are questions that need to be answered, maybe I can help him out.”

Nylander has done more than that. He has opened his home – and his pantry – to Backstrom. Remember, this is a big home, and a big pantry. Nylander and his wife, Camilla, have six children, not including their adopted 19-year-old left wing.

“Coming to his house, it’s like coming to paradise,” Backstrom said. “The food. He’s a very good cook.”

“When he comes I have to make a special dinner for him because he doesn’t eat everything,” Nylander cracked. “I have to cook two things. He’ll eat pasta, meatballs and chicken. He won’t eat fish, but he will learn in time, for sure.”

Michael Nylander, not only serves as a Capitals center, but also as a father-figure for Backstrom.

Aiding Backstrom’s transition has been his smooth adaptation of the English language. He was forced to take English classes in Sweden as part of the regular curriculum, which means he’s ahead of most of the NHL’s Europeans in that department.

“You still have to apply it, though,” Backstrom said. “If I hear Americans or Canadians speaking I still have to pick up some words. It’s only good for me because I want to learn, but I still have a problem with some words.”

Added Nylander: “Carrot. He didn’t know what it meant. Some guys came to me and said; ‘How do you say carrot in Swedish?’ I said, ‘Just tell him a rabbit eats it.’ ”

At least Backstrom still speaks the same language on the ice.

He’s the same player – a playmaker who works hard and views scoring as a bonus – that Washington figured it was getting when they selected him ahead of Boston’s second-year center Phil Kessel, and right behind Chicago rookie sensation Jonathan Toews.

“We don’t see him as a prolific scorer, as someone that will be knocking on the 50-goal plateau every year,” Hanlon said. “We do see him as someone who is going to put up numbers. Just doing the right things defensively allows him to play a lot of minutes. He’s displayed that since we drafted him, so I don’t see why he would change at the National Hockey League level.”

So, Hanlon warns, don’t for one second compare him to one of the Capitals’ other young European sensations.

“He doesn’t play like (Alexander) Ovechkin. He’s nothing like Ovechkin,” Hanlon said. “He’s just a good, solid player who is going to have a long career.”

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