There was light fog eddying the ice at San Jose’s SAP Center before the Minnesota Wild’s practice. Goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper strode out onto the rink together, before the rest of the team, cutting through the mist.
The Wild’s netminders, skating side-by-side, yet, still standing alone, created a striking visual of their relationship on the club. There can be only one starting goaltender. Still as teammates, they have the other's back regardless of who is between the pipes on any given night.
“As a goalie growing up, you know that only one guy can play, so you get used to that. Everyone wants to play and you want to be as good as you can so you get the chance,” Backstrom said. “On the other hand, it’s a team sport. It’s about the team and the locker room and for us to win.
“When you play, you try to be at your best and help your guys and make the saves. When it’s not your turn, you try to do things to support and be there for the guys.”
The backstops are often the first players on the ice before the start of practice and go through a range of drills for extra work. The friendly competition keeps them focused and pushing the other.
“One thing is for sure, he likes to work hard, I like to work hard,” Backstrom said. “That’s been us: pushing each other and going out early and working on our game.”
Although there is a competitive edge between the pair, it is about as far from a cutthroat relationship as Helsinki, Finland and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“Sometimes we’re joking around and are having fun, too,” Kuemper said. “We’re definitely teammates first and it’s been great all year.”
The position of goaltender is as individualistic as you can get in hockey: in victory, you’re the hero; in a loss, you’re the goat. It’s a position that’s difficult to understand, one of the reasons the bond between netminders is understandably strong.
Despite their age difference—Backstrom is 36 while Kuemper is 24—there is a supportive union between the two.
“I think it is back-and-forth. As a goalie, you know what the other goalie thinks. Goalies see the game very different from the other players or even the coaches. I think you need to play in the net to know what goes through a goalie’s mind,” Backstrom said. “For us, it’s been helping each other with what we see with each others’ game.”
Backstrom skated in his 400th career NHL game last night, a 5-4 win against the New York Islanders. The Helsinki native’s path to the National Hockey League has been well documented. Undrafted, signing with the Wild at the age of 28, virtually coming out of thin air to become a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2009. Like his approach to goaltending, Backstrom hasn’t reflected on his journey, only on what lies ahead.
“When you play, you focus on today,” Backstrom said. “As a goalie, you can’t really worry about things that happen. You try to learn from them and move on and get better. It’s always about the next shot. You’re going to make mistakes or get bad bounces or bad calls, but you can’t really control that. You have to worry about things you can control.”
However, for Kuemper, it is a little easier to be in awe of his counterpart’s longevity.
“It’s a pretty big accomplishment on his part and nice that we got the win for him to celebrate the night,” Kuemper said. “It just kind of shows you, if you watch a guy with that kind of preparation and his work ethic, where it can lead to.”
The young netminder is still learning that day-in and day-out consistency and mentality that has led to Backstrom’s permanence. Kuemper has a front row seat to the veteran’s approach to the game and has tried to learn as much as he can under his tutelage.
“His preparation and work ethic,” Kuemper said. “The way that he works all the time, he’s in the zone. He doesn’t take a shot lightly. It doesn’t matter if it’s early in practice or at the end of practice. So, it’s something that I’m trying to copy.”
For both Backstrom and Kuemper, their NHL stories look far from completed as they dually push for more Wild victories. While the individual accolades are nice, they pale in comparison to the ultimate team goal.
“For me to be here for a long time, it’s something special, but on the other hand as a hockey player you want to win,” Backstrom said. “It’s not about how many games you play, how many goals you score; it’s about winning. You dream about winning the Cup and that’s what keeps you going and that’s what you keep pushing for.”