ARLINGTON, Va. -- Here is something you probably don’t know about Nicklas Backstrom.
When the Washington Capitals star center returned from the Sochi Olympic Games, having been denied a chance to participate in the gold-medal game between his native Sweden and Canada because of a testing issue involving an allergy medication he’d been taking for years, Backstrom gathered his teammates in the locker room so he could address them.
He stood in front of his peers, his friends, and told them exactly what happened that led to the shocking turn of events on the final day of the Olympic tournament. Then he went out and told the media the same thing.
He did so not because the Caps’ public relations staff told him to or that he was garnering support for his case, but because he felt it was the right thing to do, to clear the air, to dispel any lingering questions about what might have happened so many miles away.
“Yeah, it was a tough time,” Backstrom told ESPN.com last week. "But I think the best part for me when I got back over here again, it was kind of like a mess back home [in Sweden] in the newspapers, but not a lot here, so that helped me a lot to focus on the game here.
“And we started playing right away again, so that helped too."
Backstrom was actually at the main rink in Sochi starting to prepare for the gold-medal game, which was ultimately won by Canada 3-0, when Swedish team officials were told there had been a positive result from an earlier in-tournament test and Backstrom needed to appear before a tribunal.
Backstrom left the rink as the rest of his puzzled teammates were entering it.
In the end, despite precedents that allowed players who’d exceeded acceptable levels of pseudoephedrine due to an allergy medication to retest and play at the Olympics (Lubomir Visnovsky was one in Vancouver in 2010), Backstrom was denied a chance to play in the crucial contest.
The ban came even though the IOC changed its protocol for testing and reporting during the tournament and did not act on the results for four days after the test was conducted -- and in spite of the fact Backstrom noted the medication on Olympic forms. Backstrom has been playing internationally for Sweden since he was a teen and was aware of the testing process but was confident there would be no issues, given that Swedish team doctors gave Backstrom approval to continue his regular dosage of the allergy medication.
The IIHF opposed the decision to suspend Backstrom from the gold-medal game and the IOC’s handling of the matter stands as a possible stumbling block to the NHL's returning to the Olympics in 2018.
After the game, a shaken, emotional Backstrom met with the media in Sochi to explain what happened.
“Obviously you never want to see that happen to anyone,” he said. “But, ah, it happened, you have to live with it and you’ve got to move on.”
— RMNB (@russianmachine) August 28, 2014
There's another thing you should know about Backstrom.
He did move on.
While other big names who had difficult Olympic tournaments -- including Capitals teammate and captain Alex Ovechkin and former Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin -- struggled to get over their disappointments on the world stage, Backstrom was a man on a mission.
He recorded three points in the Caps’ first game back after the Olympic break and had 23 points in his final 23 games as a late charge to the playoffs fell just short.
The final piece to the Sochi puzzle was finally put in place when he was presented with his overdue silver medal during a pregame ceremony at an exhibition game in his hometown of Gavle, Sweden, just before he returned to North America for the start of training camp.
His Swedish teammate Jakob Silfverberg was also on hand and received a nice bouquet of flowers, having received his medal after the gold-medal game months earlier.
“A little weird,” Backstrom acknowledged. “At least I got it.”
If Backstrom used the ill-fated Olympic finale to up his game in the last quarter of the NHL schedule, he is looking to grow even more this season. The Capitals are beginning a new chapter after missing the playoffs last season and undergoing drastic upheaval at the management and coaching levels as a result.
Longtime general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates and the rest of the coaching staff are gone. In their place: rookie GM but longtime Cap executive Brian MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz, who comes over from Nashville with a new coaching staff and a brand new philosophy.
Trotz, who had been the only head coach in Nashville history, has never coached a team as offensively gifted as this Caps team and has never had a top center as talented as Backstrom. And the vibe around the team is markedly different.
“Yeah, I can feel it too,” Backstrom said. “You can feel it, everyone thinks so, I think. I think it is a fundamental change and I think it’s good.
“I think we’ve brought in great people. I think they’re going to bring a lot of experience to his team.”
Backstrom, meanwhile, is not yet 27 but understands the responsibilities that fall to him as a member of the maturing core of the Capitals' roster to be a role model. To that end, he is looking to refine his game amid the changes in the organization.
“I think personally I can help the team better if I play better defensively, to make sure I take better responsibility in that area,” Backstrom said.
Given the maturity he has shown in the past year, it wouldn’t be a shock if he accomplishes just that.