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Summer of the Stanley Caps: Djoos and Backstrom

August 31, 2018
Friday, August 10

This day is our travel day from Malmo to Stockholm to Gävle, where Caps center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Christian Djoos will enjoy their days with the Cup on this weekend. It can’t be often that two players from the same Stanley Cup championship team hail from the same town, but although Backstrom was born in Gävle and Djoos in Gothenburg, both Backstrom and Djoos played in Gävle during their formative years. The town really must have something going for it, given the number of NHL players it has been able to turn out over the years.  

Gävle is a city of just over 75,000 inhabitants, and it’s just over an hour’s drive north of Stockholm. Gävle is situated on Sweden’s eastern shore, on the Baltic Sea, and it’s the farthest north the Cup will travel this summer. What I find so remarkable about Gävle is the sheer number of NHL players who come from this town. A total of 11 NHL players were born here, and six of them played in the league last season. That’s rather incredible for a town of Gävle's size.

A night earlier, both Backstrom and Djoos skated in the annual Black-White charity game at Gavlerinken Arena. Backstrom actually rode his bike to the game; bicycles are far more omnipresent in Scandinavia than in North America. The official game roster included 36 players, with the overwhelming majority of them Swedish-born players who are from Gävle or close by. A quick scan shows that more than half of the 36 players are NHL draftees, and I counted nine who have already played in the League. 

Our flight from Malmo to Stockholm took only an hour, and Backstrom’s father Anders, brother Kris and Anders’ friend Thomas personally made the drive down from Gävle to pick us up from the airport. Over the years, I’ve learned not to be astounded at the kindness of Backstrom and his family; it’s who they are. But it says a lot about them that they rented large vehicles and came to collect us themselves. 

Although we would be spending the next three nights in Gävle before heading home on Monday, we would have to switch hotels each night thanks to a sold out Brittney Spears show that prevented us from booking the same hotel for three consecutive nights. The Backstroms drove us downtown and dropped us at our Friday night hotel right around noon. They would return to collect us in a couple of hours. 

After dropping our bags and opening the windows in our stuffy hotel rooms, we wandered the streets of Gävle where the Gävle City Festival was underway for the weekend. Street food, games, street shopping and several stages of live music had taken over the center of the town, with several blocks closed to vehicular traffic. We found a nice spot and ate lunch outside while taking in the sights. 

Mid-afternoon, after lunch, we were picked up again and driven along with the Cup out to Backstrom’s house on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The Backstrom and Djoos clans – and some close friends of both families – have assembled here for a bit of a Friday pre-party in advance of Djoos’ day with the Cup on Saturday and Backstrom’s day on Sunday. 

We’ve come mainly to say hello to the two Caps; we haven’t seen them in a couple of months and we’re not planning on staying. Backstrom and Djoos greeted us in the large driveway that features a large stone circle with the likeness of a hockey stick emblazoned upon it. The boys posed for a couple of photos here, showed us inside, and then out onto the back patio, which overlooks the Baltic. Here, we participated in a champagne toast and snapped some photos before heading back to the hotel for a much needed couple hours of sleep.

Upon awakening, we happened into a nearby spot called Blackstone Steakhouse for dinner, and it was tremendous, even for this almost lifelong vegetarian. We lingered over a long dinner there, then texted our Cup-caretaking friends that they should join us when they returned from the Backstroms with the Cup shortly after 9 p.m. Soon Cup keepers Mario Della-Savia and Phil Pritchard and Backstrom’s financial advisor joined us, and we sat through their own leisurely dinner, too. Even though we were the last to leave the establishment, doing so after 11 p.m., we still got back to the hotel before midnight, a real rarity when you’re on the road with the Cup.




Saturday, August 11

After a fine breakfast at the hotel, we met Djoos out in front and he gave the Cup a quick lift to start his day. Our first stop was the Gavlerinken Arena where Djoos and Backstrom were jointly honored in the barn where each of their fathers played before them. 

Par Djoos and Anders Backstrom – both defensemen – were teammates for a couple of seasons here in the late 1980s with Brynas IF of the Swedish Hockey League. The elder Djoos spent three seasons in the NHL with Detroit and the New York Rangers while the elder Backstrom was a Rangers draft choice in the 10 thround (203 rdoverall) in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft. The names of both men dot championship plaques hanging from the walls in the home locker room. Brynas IF had quite a run of success early in the history of the Swedish Hockey League, winning the first two league championships and winning five times in the first 24 years of the circuit’s existence. Backstrom played on the 1979-80 title team, and Djoos was a member of the 1998-99 championship club, the last Brynas IF team to claim it.

Seeing their sons with the Stanley Cup in the same locker room on this Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking. The two sons each played three seasons here; their fathers combined for 20 seasons between them with Brynas IF. A member of the Djoos or Backstrom family has been on the Brynas IF roster for roughly half of the seasons of the team’s existence in the SHL.

The younger Djoos and Backstrom showed us where their old Brynas IF locker stalls were, and they posed for some photos before the main event got underway. The two Caps teammates walked to center ice on a red carpet, with lines of youth hockey players stretched along each side of the carpet. Both players were presented with a bouquet of flowers, and some speeches in Swedish and video retrospectives followed. 

While the two posed for photos and signed autographs, we enjoyed some of the local coffee – the Gevalia company is based in Gävle – and saw some of the rest of the building. Built in 1967 and renovated in the last decade or so, Gavlerinken is in terrific shape for a structure its age. Its seating capacity of 8,585 is fourth highest in the 14-team SHL. 

The event wrapped up early in the afternoon, giving us time to go check into our new hotel and grab lunch outside near the festival. After that, we headed to the home where Djoos grew up, and where his mother and stepfather still live.  

A few dozen close friends and family members congregated on the front porch and front yard of the home, and we were all well looked after in terms of food and drink. Champagne toasts were given, photos were taken, and I spent some time talking to Par Djoos’ father, Bjorn, who coached his son for a while in the early 1980s. Nowadays, Bjorn gets up in the middle of “every other night,” as he puts it to me, to watch his grandson play for the Capitals, six or more time zones to the west.

Having gotten wind of the Cup being in the area for the weekend, the local fire department wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get a photo. A guy on a motorcycle showed up and sat across the street on his bike for a while; we were told that he is the fire chief and he is vacationing this week, but isn’t about to miss this opportunity. Maybe 15 minutes later, the truck showed up with seven or eight firefighters. They posed for photos in various permutations, and once they were finished, we were off to our next destination, the Gävle Golf Club. 

At the club, Djoos and family hosted several dozen people for dinner on this beautiful midsummer’s night. After we mingled over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the sun began to dip a bit and it threw some lovely light on the emerging evening. A talented trio of acoustic musicians gave us a couple of sublime sets of music, with their rendition of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” one of many highlights. I’ve loved Prine since I was a kid growing up in the Chicago area as he did, and hearing his music so far from home after more than a week on the road made the planet suddenly smaller for me, if only briefly. 

Before dinner, some of Djoos’ friends broke out some white t-shirts crafted for the occasion; they read “DJ OOS” and depicted No. 29 as a jockey of the discs, a spinner of the vinyl, in black ink. It’s a good shirt, a desirable shirt.

Our string of fabulous dinners continued with this one, and many of us gravitated outside once the sun sank lower. With that setting sun as a backdrop, Djoos and Backstrom snapped some more photos before heading downtown for their final stop at a Gävle nightclub. 

While our hardy Monumental Sports Network crew kept at it, us Caps staffers fell victim to the grind and opted to turn in at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. We weren’t there, but we’ll surmise that no one had a bad time with the Cup for those two hours on that Saturday night in Gävle. 

And speaking of Monumental, they’ve been everywhere this summer and are certain to have a treasure trove of footage that so many of us will be thankful to have in the years and decades to come. We mentioned in an earlier diary entry that according to Pritchard, the Caps are the first team to do kegstands from the Cup. He also informs us that no team ever has covered and documented its summer with the Cup to the extent the Capitals have in the summer of 2018. Those are a pair of divergent legacies to add to the Cup’s ever-growing lore.

 

Sunday, August 13  

Before we parted ways on Saturday, we understood that Kris Backstrom was going to be picking us up at our hotel. So we were a bit surprised when we came up the stairs from breakfast on Sunday to find Backstrom’s parents waiting for us in the lobby. We didn’t see Kris, and it was pouring buckets outside. One at a time and with big umbrellas, the Backstroms escorted us to the van, which was parked outside. Kris stood next to it with another umbrella. As Kris drove us away, we watched his parents walk more than a block back to their car with those umbrellas. They’d come out just to keep us dry.

We drove to Nicklas’ house on the water, where the family ate ice cream out of the Cup and spent some private time with it before we headed off to nearby Valbo, a small town of 7,000 to the southwest of Gävle. This is where Backstrom first began to play hockey as a toddler when the family lived there, and the rink – formerly an open air sheet but now enclosed – bears his name: it’s called NickBack Arena. 

The community raised the funds to enclose the rink, and the construction was completed in 18 months. And on this rainy mid-August Sunday, the good people of Valbo raised a Backstrom banner to the rafters of the big barn, just minutes after he carried the Cup out onto the ice to a rousing ovation.  

Local youth hockey players and former teammates of Backstrom from both his Valbo and Gävle playing days were among many on the ice waiting for him when he arrived. After some speeches, Backstrom patiently posed for photos as everyone in the packed house filed by. When he had finished with the photos, Backstrom took us into the locker room and talked about playing here in the days when it was still an outdoor rink.

We left NickBack and made a couple of quick stops. The first was at an elementary school Backstrom attended as a youth, and then we visited the countryside house where he lived as a toddler, when he first fell in love with the game. A small field with a few black sheep grazing is where he and some other local kids would skate years ago; it’s only a couple hundred feet down the road from his house. The rain stopped, so we got out and wandered briefly. Posing with the Cup above his head and the family’s former home in the background, Backstrom exhibited a proud glow. 

We headed back to the hotel for a change of clothes, and to begin getting things together for the return to the States the next day. After 10 days on the road with the Cup, we would be heading back to Dulles, a journey that would begin in about 12 hours. But first, it was back to Backstrom’s seaside home for the final event of our tour. 

Caterers took over the large garage at Backstrom’s house, and it was buzzing with activity as guests began to arrive early in the evening. A massive tent on the lawn housed a stage, a couple of bars and a dozen or so tables where guests would spend the night dining and dancing with the Cup. Anders Backstrom told us the band is comprised of friends of his, and we asked what type of music they play. “Everything,” he says. We find out later he is not wrong. 

The evening became cool and crisp once the rain stopped, and Backstrom and family were able to make a grand entrance at the back dock, courtesy of a neighbor’s spiffy new boat. After they disembarked and returned to dry land, the cocktail hour began in earnest. 

Our only disappointment of the entire day came when we learned that Peter Forsberg, Hockey Hall of Famer and legendary two-way center, would not be able to make it because of a last-minute issue. Some of us were looking forward to a Backstrom-Forsberg photo op, because that’s a whole lot of two-way center ice goodness right there. But there were several current and former NHL players in attendance, more than I’ve noticed at most of the Cup days I’ve attended. It’s likely another indication of how strong the pull of the game is in this part of the world, where so many NHL players come from an area that isn’t a burgeoning metropolis from a population standpoint.

I spent a little time talking to Anders Huss, a veteran of 15 seasons with Brynas IF who is Backstrom’s uncle. Not only that, Huss was an 11 thround pick (216 thoverall) of the Capitals in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, some 23 years before his nephew was chosen fourth overall in 2006. I’ve known Nicklas for a dozen years, and don’t remember him ever mentioning that his uncle was a Caps draft choice some 35 years ago.  

Dinner was excellent, and the company was wonderful on my last night on the road for the summer. Caps staffers Zach Guerette, Sergey Kocharov and myself were seated with our new best friends Della-Savia and Pritchard as well as our tireless Monumental crew of Tanya Henao, Jim Kowats and Kelsey Mizeur along with Washington Post photographer Toni Sandys. It was a privilege to break bread with them in this special setting on this dreary day turned into spectacular evening. 

After dinner, coffee and dessert, everything kicked up a notch. The band chugged their way through everything from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” – a Nicklas Backstrom-chosen postgame Caps victory song from some years back – to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Solider,” and everything in between. They even tore through a cover of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” which really got the folks out on the floor. Hearing an Earle song in this context is almost as cool as hearing the Prine song at Djoos’ dinner party the previous night. I’m also a fan of the phonetic similarity between “Galway” and “Gävle.” 

The dancing continued and the kegstands got underway, and there was a palpable sense of unbridled joy in the air. The effects the Cup can have on a large gathering of people – particularly when one or two in the group have done the heavy lifting required to actually win it – never fails to astound me. The Stanley Cup is an absolute magnet for joy, and one of the best things the NHL ever did was to send it on its way for 100 days every summer, around the world to be celebrated and shared with the many who are mostly reverent and exultant in its presence.  

Exactly five weeks earlier, we had been in Moscow for Alex Ovechkin’s day with the Cup, the first of my Cup days this summer. Now, we wrapped it up with Backstrom’s day, bookending our summer of Cup travels with the two longest tenured players on the team, the two who had suffered a decade’s worth of falling short before finally reaching the summit this past spring. Witnessing the boundless pride and satisfaction both players showed in bringing the Cup back home will be a lasting memory of the summer of 2018 for me. 

At midnight, Backstrom carried the Cup from in front of the stage out to the driveway. After a couple more photos and another lift or two, he gently placed the Cup into its case and bid it goodnight.  

The next morning, Della-Savia and Pritchard headed off to Germany with the Cup for Philipp Grubauer’s day with it. We headed back home via Copenhagen, road-beaten and shorn of sleep for sure, but also deeply gratified and with an underlying layer of giddiness that doesn’t ever seem to wane. What a summer it has been.

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