June 26, 2008

Nicklas Bäckström

(info about Nicklas Bäckström)

A young wolf with Team Sweden

Thomas Kieller

Nicklas Bäckström: Waiting for the play to develop.

The young flamboyant Nicklas Bäckström just started his professional career and already he has shown on the ice a clear maturity. Persistent, well-disciplined and with a fighting spirit, he holds, at 20 years old, the role of captain with the blue and yellow Swedish jersey. After his first campaign in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, he has been nominated for the title of rookie of the year for the 2007-08 season. His ingenuity and his know-how on the ice are proven and they will develop without a doubt even more in the next few years. A promising future is upon this young man, native from the small town of Gavle. A sure talent with a gentleman’s attitude; again another Swedish flavour and this time it is signed Bäckström.

The interview took place on May 2, 2008 at 12:30 in the press conference room of the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, Canada, one of the two arenas where the 2008 World Hockey Championship was held. It was done in English.

Prelude – After a morning training in order to improve the game play of the Swedish team, Nicklas answers without holding back the numerous questions of the journalists. Then, always in a relaxed manner, he talks to me about the preparation of his team.

Unavailable players list

Thomas Kieller: Many important Swedish players are unavailable for the 2008 World Hockey Championship in Quebec City because of injuries or some players are still playing in the NHL playoffs... The five best Swedish scorers in the NHL: Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Sundin and the two Sedin brothers are unavailable or have declined. We can add other big Swedish names to this list: Lidström, Huselius and Näslund. What is the spirit in the Swedish dressing room?

Nicklas Bäckström: In spite of all the guys who are not here, we have a good feeling because everybody is excited at this moment. Yes, a lot of the guys had to say no, but everyone wants to be out there to play some good hockey. So, hopefully we can do something good even if the situation may seem not in our favour. Sweden has a good elite league and we can be hungry for victory.

Thomas: In the past ten years, Sweden was always a title contender at World Hockey Championships. In Riga in 2006, Sweden won the gold. Last year in Russia, your team finished fourth. This year, in 2008, is the target gold considering the situation?

Nicklas: It’s hard to say if we are going for gold right now. We have to take it one step at a time and we will start with the first game. Our first goal is going to be the playoffs and if we are there anything can happen. We just have to focus right now and keep in mind that we are going to the playoffs and we will see what will happen.

Thomas: Back home, in Sweden, the fans of hockey are they quite demanding?

Nicklas (smiles): I think so. A lot of people may think that there is not a lot of Swedish NHL players here at this World Championship… However, hockey is a big sport in Sweden, so the guys who like that sport will watch our games anyway.

Thomas: Now, on paper we can see that Team Canada is loaded with good NHL players. Russia has an offensive arsenal that can beat pretty badly any team. On what aspects Sweden will rely to overcome the better teams?

Nicklas: Sweden is pretty good as a whole team. We have a lot of skills and we play with speed. Here on smaller rinks, we have to play more physical. If we can do that, it can be our strength. Also, if we can send the puck deep and forecheck the defensive units, we can have an advantage.

Thomas: Do you know a lot of people in the dressing room? Actually, do the players of Team Sweden know each other in order to play well in a collective way?

Nicklas: I know everybody in the dressing room and in general, yes everybody knows each other, because we play or have played in the Swedish Elite League. So, it’s good to know the guys and their playing style because we will be more comfortable together on the ice to do what we are expected.

Thomas: Did Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Sweden’s head coach, send to the team a clear message that you will have to fight to the end to get to great honours?

Nicklas: Yes, the message has been sent. If we are in the playoffs, we will obviously go for gold. Bengt-Ake Gustafsson is a smart coach. He has played before and he knows what has to be done to go to a higher standard. He has the ability to put the group together and he will help us to achieve our greatest goal.

Thomas: How many days Team Sweden had to prepare itself in Quebec City?

Nicklas: Our team arrived in Quebec City just a couple of days ago. We just had time for two practices, but we were in Portland, United States before this where we practiced. Also, we have hit the ice a lot in Sweden too. So, we had a lot of practice before and we have had the chance to play together. I can also say that many players have already played together.

Thomas: We know that Sweden enters the tournament with 11 forwards from the Swedish Elite League on its roster. On what did you focus during training?

Nicklas: Above all, I think we have to get used to smaller rinks because it’s different from European ice rinks. We have to get used to it and change a little bit our system in the defensive zone and in the offensive zone as well. So, we practice a lot on that kind of stuff.

Nominated as rookie of the year and playing for Sweden

Thomas: At least, Sweden has one of the 2007-08 nominees for the Calder trophy. You are one of three finalists for NHL rookie of the year with two players of the Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Are you proud of that nomination? I guess you will be even prouder if you win!

Nicklas: Oh yes, I’m really proud of that because it’s an honour to be nominated. These guys, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, have been really good this season. There were a lot of young players who did well last year and I think it’s good for the future. I think of Peter Mueller, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. So, I’m proud to be nominated and to be on that list.

Thomas: And is it an honour for you to join the Swedish team again?

Nicklas: Every time you put on the uniform of your country, you are proud. I feel good when I play for Sweden. There is nothing else like that. Yes, I have to say I feel an honour when I put the jersey on.

Thomas: Did you expect that four years ago you will be playing for the Swedish team?

Nicklas: No, it’s a dream come true. Now, it’s my third World Hockey Championships. When it was my first time, I was quite surprised. I was just glad to play hockey. So imagine; it’s a bonus for me to join the Swedish team. I think it’s good sometimes to have not too much expectation from ourselves.

Thomas: You are starting to have some international experience (six games during the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championship, four games during the 2006 World Hockey Championship and nine other games in the 2007 edition), what are your motivations to play for Sweden?

Nicklas: There are always some motivations to play for Sweden. First, we have a good team, so it’s fun to play here and also you can appreciate it while conversing in your own language. In retrospective, every World Hockey Championship that I have played was enjoyable. I can easily add that there are good hockey players here and I enjoy having the opportunity to play against the best. So, I’m excited to be simply here.

Thomas: Is a World Hockey Championship different from the NHL?

Nicklas: No, because I’m just playing hockey. Well, let me clarify my response; in the NHL sometimes it’s harder because you play back to back game. I think you don’t do that in the World Championship. Here in Canada, we play on smaller rinks, so it’s similar to the NHL. If I can say, it’s fun to play on bigger ice rinks, like the ones in Europe.

Thomas: Finally, we can expect that as always Sweden will fight to the end to grab the gold and could you tell me why should a spectator see Sweden play?

Nicklas: We are excited to be here. We have come to the tournament to give our best and play well our game. We will fight and I know the players of Sweden will stand out for each other during the fifteen days. I think Sweden has the greatest skills, we can pass the puck very well and we have a good game. I guarantee that we can surprise a lot of guys!