Flames’ Backlund carefully navigating a different type of normal in Sweden

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Mikael Backlund is one of the only NHLers to have skated since the NHL season was put on pause.

He’s also one of the only NHLers who is free to go to a local gym, dine out in restaurants, gather for pickup soccer games or assemble a Kungsfors or a Tornviken.

“Here we can still go to Ikea if we want to,” said the 31-year-old Calgary Flames forward from his hometown in Vasteras, Sweden.

“Yes, a lot of Swedes go there – they have a lot of good products. We can click and collect, which is nice. We just moved into our new house, so we went there to get some smaller things for the kitchen.”

After all, that’s what people in Sweden do, COVID-19 or not.

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As Backlund can attest, things haven’t changed a whole lot for Swedes during the global pandemic that has shut down economies around the world.

Criticized by European neighbours, the Swedish government has taken a significantly more hands-off approach to battling the novel coronavirus, allowing schools, bars, cafes and businesses of all types to remain open.

“Things are fairly normal here,” said Backlund.

“People are still going to restaurants, but way less than before. Hotels and restaurants are still having a hard time, but not like in Canada.

“When we were in Calgary we criticized Sweden, and wondered what they were doing over there, but when we got here it was nice seeing people out and about and being able to go a few places.”

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Backlund returned to Sweden with his wife Frida and soon-to-be one-year-old Tillie shortly after the season was put on hold March 12. Although not required to self-quarantine for two weeks, they chose to do so in a Swedish hotel, as per NHL instructions and international standards.

“We’re being very careful, we’re not doing stupid things or going anywhere we don’t have to,” he said.

“The Swedish governments and scientists are advising people to do social distancing, but I don’t think people are doing a great job of it. People at the grocery store aren’t really that careful.

“I went to the post office and they had a line to stand behind, and a plastic barrier at the counter. At the grocery store they had those same barriers, but no lines on the floors. Everywhere they do tell people to keep their distance and keep washing hands, and stay home if you are sick. A lot of companies have told people to work from home, if you can.”

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More Swedes were already working from home than any country in Europe, and more than half of all households in Sweden are single-dwelling, making social distancing easier.

The country is armed with a world-class medical system that has experienced no shortages in equipment or hospital capacity.

To date, 2,152 Swedes have died from the virus, which is a rate far below those in Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom.

Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate per million people is 213, which is half of that in Italy (423), yet well above Canada (57), Germany (67) and the U.S. (152).

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s approach has attracted plenty of heat and interest from around the world, but has been popular domestically.

“Most people in Sweden like the way things are running here,” said Backlund, who is as curious as anyone to see if the relaxed approach is proven to be prudent.

“A lot of people I’ve discussed things with while I was in Canada – and had some arguments with – they’re positive about the way things have been handled.

“I don’t know what the best thing to do is – it’s hard to say right now – we’ll probably know whenever this is going to be somewhat over with. But the people over here see it as they’ve got to keep the economy going. They can’t just crush that.”

Urging residents to remain socially responsible throughout the pandemic, the Swedish government introduced one of its only crackdowns on March 27 when it reduced its crowd limits from 500 to 50.

“People have adjusted more since that rule came in and there were more deaths in Sweden,” said Backlund. “Like I said, Frida and I are very careful with everything we do.”

Backlund started weekly skates with his longtime skating coach last week and is working out twice a week with his trainer in a private gym. He’s also done plenty of running and played weekly soccer games with his father and some friends.

He’s convinced players would need at least three weeks of training camp to get ready for a possible return.

Life is far from normal for him, but he’s certainly free to do much more than he would in Calgary.

“We went out for one lunch to support a friend’s restaurant and the people working there all wore gloves – that’s the only time I’ve seen that,” said Backlund, whose four other Swedish teammates have also returned home, including Elias Lindholm, Rasmus Andersson, Erik Gustafsson and Oliver Kylington.

“I saw a few masks at airports when we were travelling home, but nowhere else.”

Asked if he’s optimistic the season will be concluded this summer, he hedged, citing the fact he only had wifi installed in his home earlier this week to help him keep informed.

“I feel like it’s 50-50,” he said. “I know the NHL and the NHLPA are doing all they can, but at the same time knowing how bad it is in the U.S., traveling back and forth or within, I’m not sure how it can work.”

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