Shortly after 10 a.m. Friday, those invested in the Washington Capitals’ success were treated to a welcome sight as top center Nicklas Backstrom joined his teammates on the ice for practice.
It marked Backstrom’s first skate since he was injured in Russia during the lockout and it came after the 25-year-old Swede received positive news when he visited a concussion specialist at the University of Michigan on Wednesday.
“No concussion,” Backstrom said. “So we can all be calm.”
Backstrom fell awkwardly into the boards on Dec. 26 while playing for the Kontinental Hockey League’s Moscow Dynamo and, given that he missed 40 games with a concussion during the 2011-12 season, there was concern he might have suffered another head injury.
He visited neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the NeuroSport program in Ann Arbor, this week and it was determined that he had not suffered a concussion, but only a neck injury.
“I’m 100 percent,” Backstrom said. “I know it’s a lot of speculations about what’s going on and stuff, but this is something I wanted to check out. So I went to Michigan, got it checked out.
“It was more the neck,” Backstrom added. “Stiffness and all those kinds of things, nothing serious.”
On the ice Friday morning, Backstrom was his usual smooth-skating self as he participated fully in drills. Backstrom’s presence both in the practice session and in the locker room, now that he’s received a clean bill of health, brought relief to the rest of the Capitals.
When Backstrom was sidelined for nearly three months by a concussion last season after being elbowed in the head by Rene Bourque on Jan. 3, 2012, the Capitals learned how difficult it was to make up for the prolonged absence of their most talented playmaker and passer. The power play sputtered and the team struggled.
“We were a little bit lost last year when he was out for such an extended period of time,” Troy Brouwer said. “He looked good [Friday]. His concerns were making sure that he would be back in time for the season to start. Hopefully he is. . . . I was talking to him [Thursday] night when he was flying back. He was just glad to be back and to be cleared [so] that he can help the team out and not miss any more time.”
Said Roman Hamrlik: “It’s huge because he’s one of the best players on the team and we need him desperately. So it’s a big thing to have him.”
The Capitals will open the season on Jan. 19 at Tampa Bay, and when asked if he was planning to be ready to take part in the game, Backstrom replied “absolutely.”
Backstrom acknowledged that learning he had avoided serious harm offered comfort to him, especially after he went through a lengthy and frustrating recovery process last season. He’s looking forward to the new season and getting back to NHL games, but knows there’s an important need for everyone to take extra precautions when caring for possible head injuries.
“I think everyone in the league is going to be more serious about those things,” Backstrom said. “It’s your head, you only have one head, you can’t really do anything about it. You’ve got to make sure it’s 100 percent, so you can perform out there.”
In 19 games with Dynamo Moscow during the lockout, Backstrom recorded 10 goals and 15 assists. He and Alex Ovechkin played on the same line, as they have so often in Washington, and that game time may help spark their chemistry quickly in this NHL season.
With the exception of the injury, obviously, Backstrom enjoyed his time in Russia and was glad to have somewhere to play, even if it got a little cold occasionally.
“We had a lot of games, traveling a lot — seeing a lot of different cities. Siberia [was] minus-30 Celsius that was a big experience, but it was fun,” he said. “I’m glad I did it, but at the same time I’m happy to be back here, because this is where we all belong, I think. I’ve been looking forward to play in front of the fans and everything. Everyone has been waiting for this for so long.”