Were it not for the Wild taking a chance on him, Backstrom might never have known what he could do in the NHL. He was raised in a hockey culture famous for valuing and nurturing goaltenders and is the third generation of his family to play the position. Undrafted by the NHL, Backstrom said he felt fulfilled in Finland’s Elite League — where he played for 10 years — and with his role on his country’s national teams.
As he led Karpat Oulu to consecutive Elite League championships, he caught the attention of Matti Vaisonen, the Wild’s European scout. On Vaisonen’s recommendation, the Wild signed Backstrom to a one-year deal as a 28-year-old free agent before the 2006-07 season.
He was expected to be the third goaltender behind Manny Fernandez and Harding. When Harding was injured in the final exhibition game, Backstrom remained in Minnesota as the backup to Fernandez, and his professional demeanor and appetite for practice made an immediate impression.
After watching him earn two victories in relief of Fernandez, coach Jacques Lemaire gave Backstrom his first start six weeks into the season. When Fernandez sprained a knee in January, Backstrom took over as the starter and began an extraordinary run. He finished that season 23-8-6 and led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929).
“He had to adjust to the pace of the play and the smaller ice sheet,” Mason said. “But the mental side of the game, he was already there. And he was a workhorse.”
By 2009, Backstrom’s play had earned him a place in the NHL All-Star Game. He also had solidified the disciplined, serious reputation he maintains to this day.
Relying on his routine
Backstrom usually is the first player on the ice and the last off. Though he speaks four languages — Finnish, English, Swedish and German — he says little. Always conscientious about proper nutrition and rest, he has become more so with age, which he said has kept him healthier.
His gameday routine also remains unchanged. Backstrom makes his well-known slow jog through the dim lower level of Xcel Energy Center about two hours before, to warm up his body and focus his mind. He stretches, spins on an exercise bike, stretches again and meets with Mason to review the opponent’s offense. In seven years, Mason said, that has never wavered.
Backstrom said he picked up that routine from watching other players. Now the Wild’s young goalies are learning it from him, something Yeo is pleased to see. At this time of year, the coach said, preparation is critical — and to have the goaltender modeling that behavior for others sets a tone that serves the Wild well, both now and in the future.
“You always hear you’re supposed to have the same approach every day and be even-keeled,” said goalie Darcy Kuemper, who has split time this season between the Wild and its minor league affiliate in Houston. “But to see that firsthand is something else. Nik is so consistent, no matter what the situation is. And you see the benefits of having that level of commitment.”
During the summer, Backstrom said, he gives himself a bit of a break. While he remains diligent about his diet and workouts, he said it is important to refresh his mind. His girlfriend, Heidi, and 17-month-old son, Benjamin, help him relax and recharge at their home in Espoo, Finland, a suburb of Helsinki.
According to Mason, remaining healthy this year has helped Backstrom stay in a groove. “He hasn’t had to hit the restart button like he did the past few years, when he was nicked up,” Mason said of Backstrom, who has had hip, back and groin injuries in recent seasons. “He’s played his best for us when he’s been in the net a lot. This year, he’s been on automatic pilot.”
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said last month that he would wait until after the season to talk to Backstrom about a new contract. The goalie said he believes in the Wild’s future and would like to stay.
That conversation is not at the front of his mind at the moment. After waiting five years to get back to the playoffs, Backstrom wants to keep his busy season — and its rituals — going for as long as possible.
“I’m 35 now, but I feel the same as I did when I was 25,” he said. “You only have so many chances to fight for the Cup. I want to play as much as I can and enjoy every day.”