At the beginning of this week, Swedish centre Mikael Bäcklund was playing for Team Sweden in Ottawa at the World Junior Hockey Championships. On Monday, his Tre Kronor squad lost 5 – 1 at the hands of the Canadian squad who went on to capture their 5th gold medal in as many years.
When the tournament was over, 19 year old Bäcklund’s hockey career was questionable, with a number of options. He could return to Sweden and continue to play for his hometown of Västerås in Sweden’s Allsvenskan League (where he hadn’t been logging a lot of ice time, and had only 8 points in 17 games).
Or could he stay in Canada and play for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, who own his Canadian Hockey League rights. Or perhaps he could play in the American Hockey League with Calgary’s minor league affiliate, the Quad City Flames.
Enter Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames General Manager, who selected the 6’0”, 194 pound centre Bäcklund with Calgary’s first pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft, 24th overall. Sutter was in Ottawa to watch the World Junior Tournament to watch his current picks and scout talent for the upcoming 2009 entry draft.
When the tournament was all said and done, Bäcklund turned out a solid performance. He netted 7 points in 6 games, including a pair of goals in the semi—final game versus Slovakia that earned Team Sweden a spot in the Gold Medal game. He also earned a spot as one of Sweden’s top three players in the tournament, as voted by Team Sweden coach Pär Mårts.
After the Gold Medal loss on Monday, Bäcklund was in Calgary the next night to meet with Sutter and attend the Flames home game versus the San Jose Sharks. He was still in Calgary when he was recalled from the Swedish Junior Team by the Flames early Thursday morning.
A nagging back injury for second liner Todd Bertuzzi meant Bäcklund would draw into the Flames lineup, and suit up for his first NHL game against the visiting New York Islanders.
Bäcklund earned a regular shift during the game on the third line with Curtis Glencross and David Moss to start the game. He had a strong first period in particular, almost scoring on his first shot on net.
After his first National Hockey League period, Bäcklund said, “I just found out this morning that I was going to play and I was just really happy. It feels really good to play and I’m just having fun out there.”
When the game was in the books, Calgary won the game by a final score of 5 – 2. The rookie, who is the first Flame to ever wear the # 60, logged just over 10 minutes of ice time, and even earned some time on the second power play unit. Bäcklund was held off the score sheet, despite a number of good scoring chances, including a miss on an air born puck on the doorstep.
After the game, he said, “I know I can do better. It takes some time to get used to, I think. It’s a good game for me in the best league in the world.”
It remains to be seen whether Bäcklund stays with Calgary for the rest of the season, given the fact that if he plays less than 9 games with the big club, he retains his rookie status for next year.
Even though he may be destined for the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, one thing is true: it’s been an unforgettable week for the young Swede.