Niklas Backstrom: The Wild's stone-cold secret weapon

Goalie is cool as ice between the pipes

Backstrom was good enough to make the cut for the junior elite team, the training grounds for future NHL stars. By 18, he was dressing for HIFK's men's elite—the team his grandfather played for.

At the age of 20, Backstrom had his breakout season. He played in 16 games with a 1.69 goals-against-average—an unbelievable stat lower than most goaltenders in the NHL.

But the next year all the glory evaporated when Backstrom's season got off to a rough start. Helsinki fans were critical and unforgiving.

"I wasn't enjoying the game much at that point," Backstrom admits.

The coach sent Backstrom down to a lower division 72 miles away. Unlike the professional HIFK athletes, hockey players here had to work day jobs to make ends meet.

"I think he was even thinking about retiring from hockey a little bit after things didn't work out in HIFK," says Jussi Jokinen, a forward for the Carolina Hurricanes who played with Backstrom in Finland.

The demotion turned out to be a lucky break. Backstrom's new team was second-to-last in their division. Once the heat was off, Backstrom excelled.

One night, Backstrom's team played Kärpät Olu, the giant of the league poised to move up to the elite division. Kärpät had lost only one game all year.

Backstrom's team took them out. As fans heard what was happening on the radio, they began streaming en masse into the 3,000-capacity stadium. By the end of the game, the stands were overflowing with 7,000 spectators packed in like sardines to watch the historic upset.

"It's funny how you think it's only a game, but back then it really meant a lot for the team, the organization, and for the city," Backstrom says.

Backstrom spent two years at two different teams before finally landing, in 2002, at Kärpät Olu—the giant his scrappy teammates had once outplayed.

By then, Kärpät was the underdog of the elite division. Eight hours to the north of Helsinki, Kärpät hadn't won a championship since 1981. But the team was hungry.

"We were a really young team, we had really good coaches who kind of pushed us," Jokinen says. "And then, obviously, lots of players had the mindset that they wanted to be better, and lots of us had a goal to be playing in the NHL some day."

The Kärpät coach pulled Backstrom from his hybrid goaltending style: blocking shots standing up as well as dropping to his knees. The coach switched him to pure butterfly.

One day in practice, Backstrom let a puck slip in and started cursing.

"Don't show anyone that you are affected by it," Backstrom's coach instructed.

Backstrom, who was already known for being circumspect, took the counsel to heart. "I feel I have to be that way," he says. "After a game, you can worry about the things you did wrong, but during the game, it's going to affect your game too much."

Backstrom's second year at Kärpät, the team won the championship. Backstrom was named goaltender of the year. The next year, he led his team to the league title once again.

"I think he was probably the main reason we won those titles," Jokinen says. "We had a really good team, but obviously every year if you want to win the titles, you need a very good goalie."

   

BACKSTROM OPENS HIS legs wide like a gymnast and leans forward so far his belly nearly touches the ice. He pivots upright and swivels his leg onto the edge of the rink. He stretches over his leg, like a dancer preparing for a graceful high kick.

Practice is over this November morning—but for Backstrom, it's not over until he finishes his routine.

Backstrom is a man of many habits. The slow jog around the lower ring of the rink two hours before the game. The jerking, backward skate across the crease to rough up the ice after the zamboni wipes it smooth. Even the way he tips his head back and aims his water bottle between the slats of his mask suggests a ritualistic familiarity.

"He's a routine guy," says goalie coach Bob Mason. "Big-time routine guy. I think he thrives on his preparation, where nothing's really a surprise for him."

The summer before he joined the NHL, Backstrom worked with Ropponen, the goalie coach, on his technique: balance, hand position, lateral push. Over and over, they practiced the same moves, until they were embedded in his muscle memory.

By the time he arrived in training camp in September 2006, Backstrom was ready. Manny Fernandez was the starter; Josh Harding held the backup goalie slot.

But at the tail end of training camp, Harding was sidelined by a groin injury. Backstrom was suddenly in the number-two slot.

In the second game of the season, Fernandez let three pucks out of six slide by during the first period.

At the intermission, Coach Jacques Lemaire decided to put Backstrom in,

Backstrom skated to the pipes. He bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees, ready. He waited.

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