Feature: Backstrom unspoiled by success
With an even-keel and sharp streak of wit, Wild goaltender earns his keep
Monday, 03.23.2009 / 9:00 AM / Minnesota Wild | Features
By Dave McMahon - Special to Wild.com
The barbs land squarely in Niklas Backstrom’s wheelhouse.
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But in the same manner he swats away at pucks on the ice, Backstrom maintains his focus and prepares for the next assault.
“Whenever somebody like Bruno starts throwing jabs at him, Nik comes back with, ‘Which of the four languages that I speak do you want me to respond to that in?’” Wild head equipment manager Tony DaCosta recalled recently. “Then he’ll ask somebody like [Antti Miettinen] if he can translate a jab into one of the four languages that he speaks.”
In other words, Backstrom’s just another one of the guys. He happens to have a shiny new four-year contract that came on the heels of his first-ever appearance in the NHL All-Star Game. Typical of that status, Backstrom’s 32 wins are tied for fifth in the NHL. His 2.37 goals-against average (fifth) and .921 save percentage (tied for fifth) also are among the top five in the league.
“He’s an awesome guy,” says DaCosta. “But there are two different Niks. There’s the Nik when he’s playing and there’s the smart-[aleck] Nik when he’s not playing.”
DaCosta gets the clubhouse vibe on a daily basis. It’s easy for him to tell when it’s gameday.
“He’s different if he’s playing that day,” DaCosta says. “Leave him alone. Even I leave him alone. He gets in his routine and you stay away. On his off day, he’ll be the first one to throw a jab with you, try to be the funny guy. But when he’s playing, he’s playing.
“Guys respect him. On game day, they leave him alone. Even Bruno knows he’s off-limits when he’s playing.”
Simply put, teammates appreciate what he brings on the ice.
“He gives us a chance to win every night, and that’s what a winning hockey team needs,” says Koivu. “He’s been very good for us.”
Backstrom has been in net since the time he joined his first team in Helsinki. His father and grandfather were both goaltenders.
“I’ve been watching hockey since I was 1-, 2-, 3-years-old,” Backstrom says. “Playing hockey outside in the yard or inside -- it didn’t matter. You had your hockey stick with you wherever you went.”
After he attended a learn-to-skate program, he was well on his way.
“I’ve been a goalie since the first practice with my first team,” he said. “I never tried anything else.”
To be able to man the position in a Wild uniform for the foreseeable future brings Backstrom a sense of pride.
“For sure, it feels good [to have signed the contract],” says Backstrom. “The biggest thing is that it shows you have done something, or a lot of things, right in the past. Now you have to keep on doing the same things.
“It’s a great feeling that management and the team believes in you and has confidence in you. But you have to go out there and work hard every night, do the best you can every night and show them that you’re worth their confidence.”
The reliable 31-year-old might take his share of ribbing from teammates, but it’s all in a day’s work.
“He’s early at the rink, he’s taking care of his body, he’s staying late on the ice,” fellow Finn Antti Miettinen says. “He’s real focused. Gamedays, you can’t get a lot of words out of him because he’s so focused. That’s the way he is. The amount of games he plays, he has to be focused and it’s working.”
Miettinen spent years playing against Backstrom in Finland, so he’s well aware of the type of success that his countryman can bring to a team.
“He’s definitely one of the best goalies in the League,” says Miettinen. “He has a really steady and strong work ethic. That’s something that everybody looks upon him for and tries to follow. In Finland, year-by-year, he got better. He was an elite goalie there, and came over here and worked hard, and now he’s an elite goalie here. And he cracks pretty good jokes every once in a while.”
Backstrom carries himself in a way that goaltending partner Josh Harding finds enviable.
“It’s an honor for me [playing alongside him], being only 24,” Harding says. “I’ve learned a lot from him -- the way he handles himself off the ice and on the ice. People don’t get to see the off-ice stuff, and that’s maybe where he’s helped me the most.
“I get to watch how hard he works. Just the way that he’s a professional around the rink, I couldn’t ask for a better goaltending partner. He has respect for everybody. He doesn’t take anything for granted. It makes coming to the rink enjoyable when you have guys like that.”
Backstrom has enjoyed himself at the rink since he can remember. Just like other pros did when he was a youngster, he’ll lend a hand back home with training camps and hockey schools in the summertime.
“It’s fun to teach the young kids some things,” says Backstrom. “I was at a goalie camp one time, and it was Vladislav Tretiak who hosted it. It was a tough camp, but you learned a lot. It was fun to be with other kids and see the pros.”
With his new contract in hand, players and fans alike won’t see much of a change in Backstrom. He’ll still be a stalwart in the locker room and on the ice.
“You’re the same person, the same player,” he says. “I’m here because of hockey. That’s my main goal and that’s what I focus on.”
And every time he steps onto the Xcel Energy Center, he plans to make the Team of 18,000 proud of their netminder.
“We’re spoiled here,” Backstrom says. “You can’t take this for granted. You play in different rinks, different cities, different countries, and you don’t feel the same atmosphere. It’s unbelievable here.
“I have friends or family come here, and the first thing they say about the game is the crowd. For everyone in this locker room, it’s something that we really respect and it’s a great feeling and we’re really proud of it.”
Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason acknowledges that with Backstrom in net, he knows the type of effort he’s going to see.
“He’s been a steady influence since he’s been here,” Mason says. “He’s a consistent performer, and consistent in his work ethic. He has a game that doesn’t change and a personality that doesn’t change. He’s a solid individual. The guys know him and rely on him.
“He gets rattled, but he doesn’t let a lot of people see it. The guys think he’s pretty unnerving and exudes a lot of confidence.”
Tactically, Mason has seen Backstrom take the steps necessary to warrant All-Star status.
“One thing that he has really worked on is shot preparation,” says Mason. “The little things -- like balance on the feet, and on the knees when you have traffic around you. He doesn’t get down on his side or his backside.
“He’s also getting early reads on passes, and beating the pass to where it’s going. He gets there early, and gets their quietly.”
If he’s talking about Backstrom, it must be gameday.