WASHINGTON — The night Alex Ovechkin signed his record 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals, almost 12 years ago, he and teammate Nicklas Backstrom left a raucous season-ticket holder event in silence.
Media obligations behind them, a bright future ahead, they rode the quiet elevator down one flight at Capital One Arena to the players’ parking area in the garage below. Backstrom, then just 20, had driven Ovechkin, 22, to the arena, where an estimated 3,000 fans roared when owner Ted Leonsis announced the contract extension.
After a polite goodnight to a reporter, they walked to Backstrom’s car. He’d given Ovechkin a ride to the arena. Life was simpler then. Stanley Cup playoff failures had yet to scar them. Wives and kids and life responsibilities were still a few years away.
They jumped into the car and the door shut. For a beat, the hum of the empty garage was the only sound. But from the car the quiet shattered. Ovechkin screamed and Backstrom laughed and two hockey players barely out of their teens bounced up and down in sheer joy.
The engine then roared to life – Backstrom insists he was driving, but that part remains in some dispute – and the car peeled up the exit ramp and into a celebratory Washington night.
The memory of that evening sprung to life again on Tuesday in the same building, at the same time of year when Backstrom signed a five-year deal worth $46 million that will keep him in Washington possibly for the rest of his career. One of the great centers of his generation, Ovechkin’s running mate for 13 years, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, will stay with the only franchise he’s even known.
“You are recognized when you are with the same team for a long time and that is what I want to be,” Backstrom said. “I am a born and raised Capital and that is where I want to finish. I couldn't see myself in another jersey and I don't want to play for another team.”
A trust built over 14 years, since he was drafted in 2006, No. 4 overall, allowed Backstrom to negotiate with the Capitals without an agent and in good faith. He came prepared. After maybe eight meetings since the season started in October, some in hotel rooms on the road with general manager Brian MacLellan, others at MedStar Iceplex after practice, the two sides closed the relatively small financial gap.
“You could tell his personality traits on the ice, they translate off the ice,” MacLellan said. “He's effective. He observes things well. He reads body language. He did a really good job.”
Backstrom and the Caps figured out the average annual value ($9.2 million) of the deal a few weeks back. Smaller, important issues like a no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause came near the end. But Backstrom didn’t bring paperwork to meetings, he didn’t care about the numbers.
“I knew what I was worth and that’s what I told them,” Backstrom said.
Backstrom went back a decade when he signed his own long-term contract at age 22 and the Capitals had a similar signing event at MedStar Iceplex after the 2010 season came to a shocking end after a first-round Stanley Cup loss to Montreal.
“It’s really weird because it was after my third year, but it felt like I was still new to the league when I signed,” Backstrom said. “I didn’t really know what was going on, how the process worked. Pretty new to the thing. After being here for this many years you learn and see what’s going on and how the process works. And, obviously, you were a little younger back then, too.
That deal was worth $67 million over 10 years with a $6.7 million cap hit. So long underpaid compared to other top centers, Backstrom earned fair market value for a player who turns 33 next November 23. He has 668 career assists and is closing fast on 700. He has 908 career points. He could reach 1,000 by the end of next season.
It’s not out of the question he could finish with over 1,200 career points and rank second among all Swedish NHL players behind Mats Sundin (1,349) and in the top 40 or 50 among all players by the time his new deal is finished. One thing is certain: Capitals fans didn’t want to see him leave, Washington management wanted him here and Backstrom and his family felt the same way. This is home.
“I honestly don't know, and I don't really care what would have happened if I went on the open market or whatever,” Backstrom said. “But I didn't want to take that chance. I wanted to stay here and I wanted to make a deal that worked for both sides and I want to win. That is what I want to do.”
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