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Through His Work Ethic, Backstrom Gained Respect

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

It's been 10 years since Minnesota Wild Goaltending Coach Bob Mason got his hands on Niklas Backstrom. But Mason's earliest memories of the then-rookie goaltender, much like his most recent, are of his work ethic.

"I remember that first year he came in," Mason said. "He was kind of penciled in for the third guy, and he would probably start the year in Houston."

But Josh Harding sustained an injury in training camp, leaving Manny Fernandez as the starter, and Backstrom as the number two.

At least for the first 20-or-so games.

"[Backstrom] came in, and he worked in practice, he was sharp, and there was never a day when he was not sharp in practice," Mason said. "[Head Coach Jacques Lemaire] put him in, and bang, he took that rope and ran with it.

"But again, his preparation from when he got here paid off when he got into the net because he didn't miss a beat. That's what he's done most of his career."

It was that work ethic, that selfless team-first attitude that Backstrom's former teammates recalled as he prepared down the hallway in unfamiliar territory.

Now a member of the Calgary Flames, traded by the Wild prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline, Backstrom is expected to make his 211th start at Xcel Energy Center when the Wild hosts the Flames on Thursday, but his first not wearing a Wild sweater.

"Mentally, it's going to be a hard game, and a different game, but it's going to be special," Backstrom said, standing in front of his stall in the visiting locker room in Saint Paul. "It's not going to be an easy one, but it's still just a hockey game, so I'll try to go out there and enjoy. It's going to be a game that I'm going to remember for a long time."

The mental component is something Mason lauded Backstrom for. Having worked side-by-side with him for the past decade, he got to see firsthand how Backstrom thought the game.

"He wasn't maybe the most athletic goaltender, but he was never missing anything with his mind," Mason said. "His mental game was sharp, and his preparation was second-to-none, and that's why he has 194 wins in this league."

Over the past six or so months, Backstrom's Wild teammates watched him come in every day and put in the same preparation as if it was his first season in the league, a routine that earned him respect in Minnesota's locker room.

"He's not a young guy anymore, and he's still doing that," said Mikael Granlund, who skates with Backstrom almost daily during the offseason. "He's keeping really good care of himself. He never wanted to hurt the team in the situation where he was, and every guy in this locker room respects him a lot, and everybody is really happy for him to get to play again."

Mason said Backstrom returned to the Wild this season and had, " … probably one of his better camps in maybe the last four or five years."

He played once in the preseason, shutting out the Winnipeg Jets in a 28-save, 1-0 victory. But with Devan Dubnyk signing a four-year extension, and a 25-year-old Darcy Kuemper in the fold, Backstrom was the third goalie.

"He had to take a back seat, and he did it in a humbling way," Mason said. "He didn't complain about it, and worked hard. That's the biggest thing. The guys noticed how hard he worked."

He was first on the ice every day with Mason, going through the paces and keeping himself both sharp and in shape. Then he stayed on late, taking shots from assistant coaches Andrew Brunette, Darby Hendrickson, and the remaining Wild stragglers.

"You know the day you leave the game it's what you wanted to accomplish, but it's also what your teammates think about you," Backstrom said. "It would have been easy to be a distraction, but I wouldn't have helped anyone. I wouldn't have helped myself or my teammates there. They helped me a lot, and I owed them to help them every day."

As a teammate, it was a quality that was hard to go unnoticed.

"It definitely sets the standard, coming in as a young rookie and seeing a veteran like that working every day," Kuemper said. "It sets the standard, and shows you what it takes to play at this level. He was a great guy to look up to, and I still do look up to him."

In Calgary, the consummate professional the Wild had grown accustomed to has made a quick impression on a new locker room.

"I discovered through that trade an unbelievable human being," Flames Head Coach Bob Hartely said. "He stepped right in, and the way that he works in the gym, and practice, he's a coach's dream.

"You can tell that it's natural. There's nothing fake. He didn't do anything to kind of impress us, it was just business as usual. It didn't take us very long to figure out that he was an ultimate pro."

Besides Mason, the other constant of Backstrom's Wild career was forward Mikko Koivu.

"For myself, it’s always different when you have a countryman," Koivu said a day ahead of facing his former teammate. "But what I think what he was all about was his work ethic and what kind of professional he was on and off the ice.

"It’s something that hopefully guys looked at and learned from him. It’s something special that he has. He was a great teammate on and off the ice and a great friend."

Excited, nervous, curious; they're all emotions Backstrom called upon when forecasting how Thursday might go.

Neither Backstrom, nor his former teammates, nor his former coaches quite know what to expect.

But what they do all know is, for at least one more time, the hardworking goaltender who protected Minnesota's crease for 10 years, accumulating franchise record after record, will get another spin on the ice he called home for so long.

"It will be (special)," Mason said. "I worked with him for 10 years. It will be weird to see him in the net. I watched him the other night in Montreal, and I was like, 'God.' He had the Calgary jersey on, the pads were different; the mask was different. He's been a lot of green and red for 10 years."

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