Ovechkin, a 36-year-old Russian star, is described by former and current teammates as loud, flashy and boisterous. Backstrom, a 34-year-old from Sweden, is described as quiet, laid-back, thoughtful and composed.
“Opposites attract,” said former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
“You can’t help but talk about both of them in the same breath,” Karl Alzner, their former teammate, said. “They go hand in hand.”
“It’s very rare and we’re very fortunate to be in the same organization for this long,” Backstrom said. “I think we know everything about each other inside out. Just very fortunate to play like this for this long.”
Boudreau, the first coach to play Ovechkin and Backstrom on a line together during the 2008-09 season, described Ovechkin and Backstrom’s relationship as like “husband and wife.” When he coached them, he could recall how they would chat together most days, going back and forth with each other. Other days, they needed their own space.
“There would be times when Nick would roll his eyes when Ovi would be doing stuff, but at the end, they knew where their bread was buttered,” Boudreau said. “They know each other better than two guys know anybody and so it always came back to them. Just two amazing players.”
The duo doesn’t play on a line together every night now, but when they do, their chemistry is undeniable. Ovechkin is a goal scorer. Backstrom is a playmaker known for his passing. When both are on the ice together, it creates a unique challenge for opponents.
Mike Knuble, who played in Washington from 2009 to 2012, said he remembers facing the pair in the Stanley Cup playoffs while he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I was just like, ‘I just can’t keep up with these guys,’” Knuble said. “They play on a different level, and when you play against them you almost feel helpless against them as a player. It’s a bad feeling. Love it when they are on your team.”
Ovechkin and Backstrom’s opposite personalities complement each other well in the locker room as well. Alzner, who was drafted by the Capitals and spent nine seasons with Washington, called the duo perhaps one of the best in NHL history because of their contrasting skills and characteristics. Alzner said Ovechkin is more “in your face,” while Backstrom is more “wait in the weeds” before throwing in his comments here and there.
“They are a perfect combo,” Alzner remarked.
In team meetings or closed-door sessions after bad games, Alzner would recall the same situation popping up each time. Ovechkin would typically start with a loud message, then Backstrom would usually follow it up with more reserved comments along the same lines. They took different approaches, but had the same end goal.
“Two totally different kind of ways of messaging and certainly on the ice, two different types of players,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “I think that helps with consistency with the team and made their relationship pretty special. Two guys from different countries, playing two completely different ways on the ice and come together to have such special careers with each other.”
“Alex, I think he just loves life, very charismatic, unique in so many ways,” center Lars Eller said. “It seems like he never has a bad day in his life. He just always comes in cracking jokes, laughs at himself, laughs at others, doesn’t seem to ever be worried … Nick is one of those guys that doesn’t need to be loud to be heard.”
Knuble pointed out that neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom has expressed any outward animosity toward the other and neither have felt like they needed to be the only one in the spotlight. They’ve shared their triumphs in Washington together, embracing it every step of the way. They’ve also helped grow the game in the District.
“We are all getting to the age where our kids are roped into the second generation of crazy Caps fans, and not that there wasn’t fans before Ovi and Nick got here, but I think it popular and more of a family tradition, Carlson said.
Off the ice, Ovechkin said he can tell when Backstrom is in a good mood, bad mood and vice versa. They might not spend time together as much outside of the rink as when they were younger, but their bond is still apparent.
After a recent photo shoot, they fielded questions about their time together in Washington. Once again, they had similar answers, just different ways of getting there. When asked what the best attribute was of the other, or the best compliment they could give the other, their answers were simple.
“You’re so beautiful, man,” Ovechkin said to Backstrom as he turned to face his teammate.
“You’re so cute,” Backstrom responded. Then they burst out laughing and walked down the hall, together again.