A little over a month before the NHL season was put on pause, Mikael Backlund walked into his coach’s office with a message.
He needed a change.
Fulling accepting of a move to the wing in an effort to kickstart the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the 31-year-old Swede now felt stale and in a need of a return to his longtime gig, as centre on the Flames’ second line.
The meeting was devoid of bluster or ultimatums – just a calm, rational, reasoned explanation of why he felt the move was best for both him and the team.
“It was handled very professionally and politely, and I think it came from the right place,” said Flames interim coach, Geoff Ward, whose style revolves largely around communication.
“I wouldn’t expect anything different from Backs. He came in and he sort of stated his points and it made a lot of sense, so we decided to make the move.”
What followed was a scoring binge Backlund had never previously pieced together in his 12-year career.
Centering Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, Backlund scored 10 goals and added 12 assists in his next 16 games.
Only five NHLers had more points from early February onward.
The question now is whether he’ll be able to carry forward any of that momentum should the season be resumed for the playoffs later this summer.
After all, Backlund admits he’s a notoriously slow starter out of training camp.
One advantage he may have over some of his competitors is the fact he’s spent the last few months in his hometown of Vasteras, Sweden, where the country took a radically different approach to COVID-19.
There was no requirement for him to quarantine once he returned home, nor was the economy shut down like North America. While exercising plenty of caution, he was able to play weekly soccer games with friends, work out with his trainer and skate with his power skating coach.
He’s been free to visit restaurants as well as make regular trips to Ikea to outfit his recently-built home. Yes, Swedes are still fiercely proud of their country’s iconic furniture outlet.
“I don’t know if it’s the right way or not but so far all my friends and family are healthy,” said Backlund of his country’s approach.
“If we get back, training camp is not going to be perfect. I’ll just try to get back to NHL speed and just accept and not get frustrated. I hope I’ll find the A-game but if it takes one or two games, well, it’s just been awhile. I expect myself and my team to win games – and I hope we do – but at the same time it’s a different scenario.”
Will he be able to carry his recent confidence into a season reboot?
“Yes, for sure,” he declared.
The way Backlund went about effecting such changes serves as a perfect example of why the affable Flames veteran was honoured by the Calgary media with the Peter Maher “Good Guy” Award Thursday. Given to the player who is most respectful of, and cooperative with, the media, the unique honour is a nod to a side of the business rarely recognized.
“He’s really an example of the type of person you want in your organization,” said GM Brad Treliving of the Flames first round draft pick from 2007.
“He prepares how you’d want him to prepare. He treats people the right way and fans the right way. I don’t know if there’s a more deserving winner of this award.”
Maher, who retired in 2014 after being the beloved radio voice of the Flames organization for two decades, participated in the Zoom call as part of a tradition that has also seen the likes of Joe Colborne, Matt Stajan, Chad Johnson and Travis Hamonic so-honoured.
“It means a lot to me – I’m very thankful,” said Backlund, who can always be counted on for thoughtful responses to media inquiries.
“It’s been a long ride – I’ve spent a lot of years together with many of you guys. You’ve been good to me. You’ve never written anything bad or wrong about me or counted me out. I really appreciate that.”