Sickman had asked Backstrom the day before to do a photo shoot for a local magazine. It was a simple request, but Backstrom wasn’t going to make his PR guy’s life easy. The Wild netminder got Sickman’s attention and quietly told him with a straight face, “Sicky, I can't do it tomorrow. I’ve got things to do.”
Sickman shot back, “Come on! It’ll take 10 minutes. You want to promote the game, don’t you?”
“Nope,” was Backstrom’s still quiet response accompanied by the shake of his head, and without the hint of a smile. “I’ve got things to do.”
Backstrom did the photo shoot the next day, as was his intention all along. But this is Nik Backstrom, a guy with a wit almost as quick as his kick save.
“(Sickman) is too easy to make fun of,” said Backstrom. “I don’t think he’s a challenge for anyone.”
Backstrom doesn’t limit his barbs to team employees. He famously told Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that there would be two lockouts before Derek Boogaard scores his next NHL goal.
Four years ago, Backstrom wasn’t showcasing his dry sense of humor in the Wild locker room. He came to the team’s training camp in the summer of 2006, just trying to earn a spot on the team that signed him as a 29-year-old free agent from the Finnish Elite League. He stayed mostly quiet unless he was speaking Finnish with countrymen Mikko Koivu
and Petteri Nummelin.
Backstrom was spectacular in training camp that year, but conventional wisdom dictated that Josh Harding
had earned the right to back up Manny Fernandez, who signed a contract extension the previous year. Late in camp, Harding was hurt, and that opened the door for Backstrom to step into the backup role.
Later that season, Fernandez was injured, and a new Wild goaltender era began. He led the team to the playoffs with his 23-8-6 record, and began to get more comfortable with his teammates.
Over the last three years, Backstrom has posted a .923 save percentage, which ranks higher than any other goaltender in the League. Last year, he was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. And one week ago, Backstrom won his 100th game in a Wild sweater.
“Obviously, he’s a great talent,” said Backstrom’s new head coach, Todd Richards. “But he does a lot to help that talent come out.”
Just before his encounter with Sickman, the Wild had been put through a rigorous practice since the next scheduled game wasn’t for another two nights. After the hour was up, Backstrom stayed out for another 30 minutes, taking shots from his goaltending coach, Bob Mason.
“I saw him play a little bit last year, but when you see him every day…it is amazing,” said Richards. “You always hear about how the elite athletes separate themselves from the good athletes. You watch him and he’s on another level with his work ethic and how he prepares.”
Then there was this past Saturday. After the team had played three road games in four nights, Richards gave everybody the day off with a Sunday afternoon game coming up.
On a beautiful Carolina afternoon, one player was at the rink and taking shots.
“I like to face the puck and feel the puck,” explained Backstrom. “For me, it’s more to move my feet. If I don’t skate, usually my body feels worse than when I’m skating. I like to go out there and move around, sweat and work hard. It’s more maintaining your skills but it’s also improving things, moving around and trying to be cleaner with the puck so I don’t give up too many rebounds.”
Said his General Manager, Chuck Fletcher, “Nobody on our team works harder than Nik Backstrom.”
Backstrom separates himself with his relentless work habits, but he’s also mastered the art of forgetfulness: being able to shake off a bad goal, or a bad outing.
A week before winning his 100th game, Backstrom was pulled after two periods having given up four goals to the Vancouver Canucks. One goal came from behind his net and bounced off his midsection into the net. Two nights later, he was back in goal, leading his club to a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers.
Backstrom is now 13-2-4 in games after getting pulled with a 1.94 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. In his last 10 starts after getting pulled, he’s 9-0-1.
The night after beating the Rangers, the Wild was in search of its first road win of the season against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Backstrom let in a goal from the slot by Pascal Dupuis. He turned his palms up in dismay, upset at himself for not seeing the puck until it was too late. He didn't give up another goal the rest of the night, and the Wild had road win number one after a dazzling 34-save performance from the rock solid netminder.
“He’s a steady influence back there,” said Andrew Brunette, one of Backstrom’s favorite chirping targets in the locker room. “Every time he’s back there, for the most part you know you’re going to have a solid game. He’s not going to allow ways for teams to beat us and keeps us in every game. He’s a fortune to have and he’s a calming influence on the guys.”
Backstrom may keep his teammates calm, but he believes he sometimes shows his emotions too much. It certainly doesn’t appear that way from the stands, but considering Backstrom’s usual calm demeanor, he might consider a cough as an emotional outburst.
“You get frustrated, but you have to move on,” he said. “The next shot is going to be the biggest thing. I think sometimes you can show too much (emotion), but it’s a good sign if you’re emotional out there. It shows that you really care, and you want to be at your best.”
The Finn always seems to be at his best. While the Wild hasn’t picked up as many wins as it would want at this point of the season, there hasn’t been a game when Backstrom has played where they didn’t have a chance at victory.
“That’s all you can ask for as a coach,” said Richards.
Backstrom’s comic relief is just a bonus, but it’s also his favorite part of coming to the rink.
“When you ask retired players, for sure they miss the game and miss having the chance to play in front of a great crowd,” he said. “But it’s the locker room time you really miss, where you sit down here and have fun and everyone’s chirping.”