Time moves so quickly, a puck slicing across the ice tape to tape.
Flash back to 2007. Maybe you took a job in D.C. in your early 20s and the Capitals were something to bond you to a new, unfamiliar place. Maybe the kids were suddenly off at college and you got back into watching the team after its lean years. Maybe you were a middle-school hockey player, frozen rinks and 6 a.m. practices the heartbeat of your day.
Or, maybe, you were “a pudgy little Swedish kid”, as former Caps goalie Olie Kolzig jokingly said, expectations high, experience limited, expected to join forces with your far more brash, flamboyant teammate and lift a franchise to a championship.
Nicklas Backstrom arrived in Washington in 2007. He was 19, shy, confident he could thrive in the NHL but humble enough to keep that to himself. Over the years he grew and maybe you grew with him.
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On Thursday night, Backstrom will be honored for his 1,000th NHL game – a milestone only Alex Ovechkin has reached for a proud organization that featured plenty of wonderful players and teams over the years, but always fell short in agonizing ways until it finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
The Capitals have more points than any other franchise since Backstrom’s rookie year. That’s not a coincidence.
“He’s been the grounding force,” ex-teammate Mike Green told Monumental Sports in an interview this month. “He’s always been involved in everything and not necessarily gotten all the recognition for it – and I don’t think he necessarily needs it or wants it. But he’s always showed up and done the work no matter whether it’s off the ice or on the ice. I think that goes a long way with a community and a fanbase.”
When you think of Backstrom, you can remember the great moments. The lump-in-your-throat image of Ovechkin handing him the Cup on the ice in Las Vegas as the two screamed joyful profanities at each other and skated it together toward their waiting teammates.
The overtime winner against the Flyers as a rookie, on his 20th birthday, Bruce Boudreau’s first game as coach – the victory that really began the Rock-the-Red era.
Remember the playoff hat trick, with the overtime game-winner, in Game 2 of that fateful, devastating 2010 series against the Canadiens? Or the OT playoff goals vs. the Bruins in 2012 or the Islanders in 2015 or the Blue Jackets in 2018?
Related: 7 best moments of Nicklas Backstrom's career
It might just be a game where the details are fuzzy and lost to the past, sometime in 2008 maybe, when Backstrom slowed the fastest sport on earth to a crawl, the puck on his stick, “playing chess while we played checkers” ex-teammate Brooks Laich said, and saucing a pass to a teammate who didn’t even know he was open for an easy goal.
There won’t be any fans in attendance Thursday and that’s both a shame and somehow fitting for a player who has lived in Ovechkin’s shadow yet been comfortable enough in his own skin to accept it. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
They were teammates for so long, they knew each other’s flaws and imperfections. Ovechkin had a Calder Trophy and 98 goals in his first two NHL seasons but also two 70-point, last-place finishes. It was only when Backstrom arrived that the Capitals made the playoffs for the first time. This was never a one-man show.
They playfully punched each other silly in Backstrom’s car that night in January, 2008 when Ovechkin signed his 13-year contract, only one observer on hand to catch their sheer giddiness before they peeled out of the arena parking garage and off into the night to celebrate.
Backstrom would sign a 10-year deal of his own in 2010. And then he re-signed again for five more in 2020. He is 33 now. A father of three. A Stanley Cup champion. The points leader (44) on a veteran team that feels its title window closing, but still believes it can win a second Cup.
Thursday will be a night to honor Backstrom alone, a deserved solo tribute for 1,000 games and a remarkable career ‑ even if he doesn’t really need the fuss or want it.
Think of all those games and all those nights across 14 years to reach that number with one team. That's enough time for a person to arrive in a new city and put down roots, to start a family, to find love or lose it, to welcome grandchildren, to change jobs a few times, to get through your teenage years and come out on the other side.
Backstrom has had his own journey, his own ups and downs, triumphs and despairs. No career is perfect, not even a Hall-of-Fame one. But as you think back on your own life since 2007, the changes, good and bad, the chances taken and missed, the goodbyes, temporary or permanent, Backstrom and the Capitals were always there in the background piling memories on top of each other like coral for those who cared enough to watch night after night the way sports fans do.
Even in your father’s hospital room on a winter Tuesday night just days before he’d be gone. A loose puck, a quick pivot in the defensive zone and then an easy cross-ice pass, tape to tape, that Dmitry Orlov spun into gold with an inside-out move that woke dad from his sleep.
“Who did that?” he asked, the fog cleared briefly by a play-by-play man’s shout.
“Backstrom to Orlov. Caps tie it 2-2. Good game, old man. You want to sit up and watch?”
A flicker of recognition, a look at the replay and a half smile, a nod of approval, before slipping back to sleep. Backstrom, playing a game in Dallas 1,400 miles away, had no idea. This was just another night in a long, distinguished career that reaches an apogee at Capital One Arena this evening.
We've been there for all of his moments. But he's been there for ours, too.
The Capitals are taking on the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night on NBC Sports Washington for Nicklas Backstrom's 1,000th career game. Tune in at 6 p.m. for Caps Pregame Live to preview the game and break down Backstrom's impact ahead of puck drop.