Niklas Backstrom: The Wild's stone-cold secret weapon
Two hours before the game, Niklas Backstrom stands alone. Dressed in his Minnesota Wild track suit, he stares straight ahead, steps onto the concrete floor of the stadium's lower ring, and lurches into a slow jog.
Backstrom takes his time. It's less than half a mile around the Xcel Center, but he's moving slowly enough that a spry grandma could outpace him.
He jogs for 15 minutes. Then he goes to the team meeting. Then he stretches.
Then he's ready.
At 7 p.m. the buzzer blares. The lights flash over the ice.
"Niklas Baaaaaackstrom!" the announcer calls out.
It's Election Day, and the Minnesota Wild host the San Jose Sharks on home ice. The goalie's name comes first. He's the anchor—the wall holding back the puck.
Midway through the second period, the Wild have shot only four times. Meanwhile, Backstrom has stopped 18 San Jose pucks.
"Sharks swept all four from the Wild last year," the announcer reminds the crowd.
The Sharks' center aims and fires.
Backstrom's reaction is instantaneous. He drops to his knees, splaying his legs out like the wings of a butterfly.
"Stop. Re-BOUND! Pass. Save, Back-Strom! And he's got this one in the crease!"
The scene repeats itself throughout the night. The Sharks shoot again and again—36 times, all told—and Backstrom doesn't let even one slide into the net. The Wild win the game, 1-0. Backstrom gets his first shutout of the season and the 20th of his career.
"I thought we played well," says Todd McLellan, the Sharks' coach, after the game. "But Backstrom was better."
FINLAND HAS BEEN exporting goalies to the National Hockey League in droves in recent years, and Backstrom is among the small hockey nation's finest.
The number-one goalie for the Minnesota Wild was good enough to earn the backup spot on Finland's 2010 Olympic Team, where he bested the starter in save percentage and goals-against-average, and helped Finland take home the bronze.
In his first season in the NHL, Backstrom led the league with the lowest goals-against-average. With fellow goalie Manny Fernandez, Backstrom took home the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Every year but one, his stats have been better than his team's.
"Well, I think the goalie is the most important guy," says center and fellow Finn Mikko Koivu, the team's captain.
Backstrom is the product of a movement that began in Finland 27 years ago, around the time that the goaltender first strapped on skates. Recognizing an opportunity to excel, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association decided to pump extraordinary effort into goalie coaching at every level.
"The Finnish goalies get a better foundation than goalies in almost any other country," says Jukka Ropponen, who helped the association make the push.
The resulting crop was so good that they outgrew SM-liiga, the elite Finnish league considered the number-two system in Europe. The Finnish goalie pipeline has produced greats like Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and San Jose's Antero Niittymäki, and now the Wild's Backstrom.
The solitude of netminding is a comfortable fit for the Finn. If Minnesotans are reserved and private compared to the rest of our countrymen, we look like brash New Yorkers compared to the Finnish people.
"In Finland, I would never consider saying 'Hi," to the bus driver or saying 'Thank you,'" says Marko Kananen, a Finnish transplant to Minnesota. "When I moved here I was really shocked when people in the bus started to talk to me."
It makes sense that a culture this introverted would produce athletes who thrive in solitary sports. Finland has never done particularly well in team sports, but has always owned individual competitions such as the javelin throw or Nordic ski jumping.
"Those are all very lonely positions," Ropponen says. "Those are quiet, kind of introverted people that are really successful in those."
Small wonder that Backstrom prefers to deflect attention to his teammates.
"The thing I like about him is it's always team first, it's never individual," says Todd Richards, the Wild's head coach. "A lot of times goalies get a lot of credit. He's very humble. 'The guys in front of me did a great job.' And it's genuine. It's real."
BACKSTROM'S BETWEEN THE pipes, pucks flying. Two wings shuttle the puck back and forth in front of the net. Backstrom dives to the right. The offense sees the opening to the left. The other wing scoots the puck into net—right through the wide-open back door.
Backstrom throws his head back—one of the few signs of frustration he ever shows. And this isn't even a game.
"He doesn't like to give up any goals in the practice, either," says Wild teammate and fellow Finn Antti Miettinen.
Backstrom comes from a long tradition of netminders—his grandfather and father were goalies, and at the age of six, Backstrom strapped on the bulked pads. He liked the equipment, and he had the right disposition for the pressure cooker.
"I've never seen him breaking a stick or throwing a bottle," says Olli Ahonen, who played with Backstrom in Helsinki, on the under-20 and men's teams. "If there's emotions, he doesn't show it to the outside."
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.
"Niklas Backstrom, we'll see," the announcer said. "Player for the Finnish elite league. He's not a young kid."
The buzzer blared. The sticks clacked. The game was on.
Four minutes into the period, Backstrom stopped his first NHL puck. He kept every puck out for the next 20 minutes—a shutout in his first period as an NHL goalie.
In the third, Nashville slipped two goals past Backstrom. On the other end of the ice, Minnesota's offense scored three to make it 6-5, Wild.
With three minutes left on the clock, the Predators' star center tore down the ice on a breakaway.
"Timonen takes the shot," the announcer cried. "He fires!"
The puck hurtled toward Backstrom. He dropped, bowed his knees, and leaned forward. The puck hit, bounced off his knee pads, and back into play.
The puck flew left. Backstrom reached for it...
Backstrom had saved 17 pucks in 40 minutes in his NHL debut. Afterward, he was nonchalant about his achievement.
"It was easy to get in your first game like that because you can't think so much," he said, "You can't be nervous."
Backstrom finished his first season with a 1.97 goals-against-average—the best in the league. Together with Fernandez, he shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing in the least goals in the league.
"Nik's been terrific," says Chuck Fletcher, the Wild's general manager. "Every night he gives us a chance to win."
"I JUST WONDER if either of you have children," the woman wants to know. "And if you plan to have them play hockey."
It's a Tuesday night at a St. Louis Park tavern, and Backstrom and his Finnish teammate Anti Miettinen are fielding questions from diehard Wild fans who arrived three hours early just to get a seat.
For Miettinen, the question is a softball. "I actually have a son, he's 10 months" he says.
The host, a Wild employee, knows not to go there with Backstrom. He deftly steers the conversation forward without giving the goaltender a chance to respond.
"No one's brought it up, so let's talk about the trip to Finland," he says, waving the mic.
Even for a Finn, Backstrom is notoriously private about his off-ice life. He's had the same girlfriend for years, but he keeps her and the rest of his family carefully under wraps from the press, even in Finland.
In that Nordic nation, the media fawns over hockey stars. Fellow Finns in the NHL such as Teemu Selänne make a big show of driving fancy cars and traveling with an entourage.
"And you don't hear that about Backstrom," says Kananen, the Finnish transplant to Minnesota. "I don't know anything about his personal life, whether he's married or has kids or anything. It's kind of unusual, considering that he's, like, a big star."
His teammates say that Backstrom is quiet, steady, calm. They make fun of him for the only time he gets visibly excited—in the net, yelling directions at the defense.
"We always joke around," says defenseman Nick Schultz. "Him being from Finland, when he's screaming we can't really figure out what he's saying."
Tonight, Backstrom displays his usual singleminded approach.
"What part of your game would you most want to improve on?" a preteen girl asks.
Backstrom deadpans: "Yeah...I would like to stop more pucks."
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