Ristos HockeyBlog
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I want to say that I saw the future of hockey last Thursday. Like when Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen and wrote the legendary – beyond legendary – description about him: “I saw rock 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

I traveled to Gavle last Thursday to see Sweden play against Russia so that I could come back and tell you that I had seen hockey’s future.

“And its name is Nicklas Backstrom,” I would say.

And all the Minnesota Wild fans would read it and think I’m a genius. And when this other Nicklas Backstrom would become a superstar in five years, everybody else would agree: I am a genius.

Nobody remembers the failed predictions because they’re just not interesting. Everybody can do that.

So, I picked up Martin, my photographer and designer buddy, and we drove the 120 miles north of Stockholm to see Nicklas Backstrom, 19, play his last game at the Läkerol Arena.

Next fall, Backstrom moves to Washington DC.

It’s kind of funny. At the beginning of last season, Backstrom was slated as maybe the third center in Brynas, the same Gavle club his father played with in the 1970s. The team’s coach, Leif Boork (whose crew cut some of you may remember from the 1984 Canada Cup) showed the Brynas players what tough love means, kicking a few off the team, giving more ice time to those who delivered regardless of their age or how much they talk, and before you could say Nicklas Backström, Nicklas Backström was their main man.

Fast forward to last Thursday and see 7,000 people seeing him off to the NHL.

“NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM!” shouted a group of hardcore fans from the designated cheering section, with standing room only.

The four Russian fans in the section next to them didn’t react.

In the first period, Backstrom rushed the puck into the Russian zone. The fans saw their chance.

“NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM!”

And when he picked up an assist on Alex Steen’s goal?

“NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM!”

On the ice, in the game, there is no such thing as age. Only players. Backstrom plays maturely, and shows what I interpret as signs of young age only once. He flips a nice pass right to Steen who shoots, but misses. Backstrom skates back to the bench, and twirls his stick a couple of times so that his blade looks like a propeller.

After the game, everybody wants to talk to him.

Backstrom smiles, like a teenage kid trying not to. His blond hair curls from underneath the helmet as he tells everybody that if felt “a little strange” to think it might have been his last game at the arena, at least for a while. Like fifteen years (barring a lockout that would bring all the stars back home).

Just as one of the reporters asked him about his NHL plans, and just as Backstrom had said he had a long way to go – “first I need to sign a contract, then take a spot on the roster” – a group of fans showed up above the mixed zone where the interviews took place.

“NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM! NI-CKLAS BACK-STROM!”

Backstrom smiled, and waved a little. It was bigger than a royal wave, but not a Nixonian farewell. Something in-between. On Wednesday, Backstrom takes on Team USA in Stockholm. That may be his last game in Sweden for quite some time. Maybe he’ll wave more then.

The fans were young. Maybe 20, 21, 22. Only three years older than Backstrom. Maybe later last night they all sat at Max, the local burger joint and ate a Brynas meal.

Backstrom seems so … nice. So good. So wholesome. So down-to-earth, and just so perfect.

It’s a long way from Gavle to Washington DC. In fact, when I checked the Google Maps to see just how far I saw this:

53. Take the ramp onto Quai Frissard.
54. At the roundabout, take the 4th exit onto E05, 2 mins.
55. Swim across the Atlantic Ocean 5,572 km 29 days 0 hours.
56. Turn left at Long Wharf 0.2 km.


But if anybody can do that, Nicklas Backstrom can.

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