They happened several years ago on a ping pong table in the basement of the Nylander family home in the D.C. suburbs.
Nylander’s father, Michael, took a mentorship role with Backstrom after the Swede moved to North America to play for the Washington Capitals. He was a frequent guest at dinner and would often sneak downstairs to play with one of the six kids, which included William and younger brother Alexander, a Buffalo Sabres prospect.
“I was over there all the time,” Backstrom said Saturday. “I was playing ping pong with the kids and hanging out with their dad. I had dinners there. They took care of me, they were a big family, and I think they were cooking for the whole family so I don’t think they minded an extra guy.”
They are fond memories for the Capitals centre, and a little more front of mind now that he’s facing William’s Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
Michael Nylander was a teammate for his first two NHL seasons and then moved on to the New York Rangers. While Backstrom was aware that his two boys were promising hockey players, he kind of lost track of them over the years.
Then William Nylander was called up by the Leafs before a game in Washington late last season and produced a 61-point campaign as a rookie this year.
“It’s fun to see him,” said Backstrom. “The last time I saw was when he was 13. So a lot has changed.”
This is the life William always figured he was destined for.
He remembers those ping pong matches, and coming to games at the Verizon Center to watch his father play and getting a chance to run around the Capitals dressing room. Occasionally, he would even take the ice with his dad before a practice.
“It was a fun part of growing up, for sure,” said Nylander.
Now his name appears on the white board in that same locker room and the Capitals are talking about ways to neutralize him and linemates Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman.
Nylander had four shots on goal in the first period of Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss in the series opener – playing more than four minutes head-to-head with the Backstrom line at even strength.
“He’s good,” said Backstrom. “He’s got a lot of skill, he’s a quick player too. He’s dangerous with the puck, I mean he can score from everywhere and he can make plays. For being first year [in the NHL], it’s pretty impressive to watch him and the skill level he has.”
Backstrom still exchanges the odd text with Michael Nylander, who is watching this series from afar. They last saw one another in January when the Leafs visited Washington during their annual fathers’ trip.
It’s pretty clear that the time he spent with the Nylander family early in his career was meaningful. Backstrom was a shy kid who spoke halting English when he first came here and lights up when asked about that time.
“That was really nice of them,” he said. “That’s always something I’m going to remember that their whole family is such nice people and [Michael] really took me under his wing when I got here.”
Seeing where he and William Nylander have ended up is a reminder of how quickly the circle of life spins in the NHL.
Backstrom is now 29 – a father of two himself – and playing against the little kid who once tried to beat him at ping pong. Asked if it makes him feel old to see William on the visiting bench, Backstrom smiled.
“No, I feel like I’m 20,” he said.