In 2006, an 18-year-old Nicklas Backstrom played on the Swedish national team alongside a 25-year-old Henrik Zetterberg at the World Championship in Latvia. Backstrom was a promising NHL prospect while Zetterberg had just finished his third season with the Detroit Red Wings.
That tournament marked the first they’d met, and Backstrom quickly came to admire Zetterberg. So when Backstrom was drafted fourth overall by the Washington Capitals later that summer, he asked Zetterberg for advice. Should he go straight to the NHL or wait another year?
When the Capitals play the Red Wings for a final time this season on Saturday afternoon at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Backstrom and Zetterberg’s lines will likely be matched against each other. Hockey players insist there are no friends on the ice, but off it, Backstrom is grateful for how Zetterberg influenced his decision more than a decade ago.
“He kind of came up in the same situation as me,” Backstrom said. “He got drafted and then he stayed home one or two extra years. And when I was there in the exact situation, I actually got very fortunate to play with him on the national team first. I talked to him about that, and he told me that staying home is only good for yourself and to play at home for the national team and to play a lot of minutes. You develop more. That was actually a huge help for me, and I felt like I was more ready when I came over here.”
A few weeks after he was drafted, Backstrom announced that he would play another season with Brynas in the Swedish league, putting his NHL debut off for a year. Backstrom said that before he spoke to Zetterberg, he had been undecided. The Capitals had promised him an NHL roster spot along with power-play time.
“At the same time, you can’t really be sure,” Backstrom said. “That’s what he said. He kind of explained how things work over here, so that was really helpful for me, and I’m happy that I made that decision. … You see a lot of players come over maybe too early. They force their way into the NHL, and maybe things don’t go the way they like it right away. For me, that was my best choice to stay home an extra year.”
Said Zetterberg: “Mostly probably because I stayed another year, too. It helped me a lot when I stayed that year. I played one Olympics and one World Championship. I think that helped me a lot to prepare to come over here. You get a little bit more mature. You get a little bit more responsibility in Sweden and play more minutes. I told him there’s no rush to get over here. He’ll be here for many, many years anyway.”
Zetterberg was right. Backstrom scored his 700th point against the Anaheim Ducks a week ago. He has 17 goals and 43 assists this season, and his 60 points rank fourth in the league this season. Has Backstrom ever told Zetterberg how much that bit of advice meant to him 11 years ago?
“He doesn’t tell me stuff like that,” Zetterberg said with a laugh.