ARLINGTON, V.A. — “I’m going to start off by saying I’m pain-free.” That was the first thing that Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom had to say at training camp on Thursday. Through wide eyes at media day, he stands at the podium wearing a smile as he no longer feels burdened by the chronic pain he’d felt for years until he underwent hip resurfacing surgery this June.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the 34-year-old, who didn’t — and still doesn’t — want to see his NHL career come to an end. The procedure comes with risks and has ended the career of a few players, including Ryan Kesler, and it took a while to ponder for No. 19.
Back in 2015, Backstrom suffered a hip injury and underwent surgery. Since then, he has had chronic pain in his left hip. Though he’s played through it, his hip has grinded down with the skating and intensity that comes with each season and age.
The 34-year-old missed the start of 2021-22 as he rehabilitated his hip, which had started to bother him again before camp. He came back in mid-December, and though it was better than it was, he felt it start to grind down again over the course of the season, where he had 36 points in 47 games and six points in six playoff games.
“I came back and it felt good for a couple games, but then it started doing the same thing,” Backstrom said. “I don’t know. After a couple years, what I’ve gone through this past year… mentally, it’s tough to just live that way.”
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And according to Backstrom, it was just a couple of games into the season that his hip issues resurfaced, and he started hurting big time. It got to a point where he couldn’t tie his shoes or skates without pain, and he was out of options.
“I think I tried everything else to make it better,” he explained. “But at the same time, this kind of like, the last resort: unproven technology for sports. I just think that’s the biggest thing, but I had to do it because I had no other choice. It’s either that, or I’ll skate on one leg again.
“Something had to change. I had this in the back of my head that this was an option, so here we are.”
So, after talking to Andy Murray and others about the procedure, he ultimately made the difficult decision to undergo the surgery in Belgium. Since then, he knows that he’s made the right choice — and he finally feels free.
“It was a life-changer for me in daily life,” Backstrom said. “Just to pick up socks, tie my shoes, stuff like that, and play with my kids. I couldn’t really do that, either. It helped me a lot functionally, and I’m happy about that. That part, I’m feeling great. Now it’s just the next step to get me back to the ice.”
Backstrom has been around MedStar Capitals Iceplex and has been doing off-ice work and making progress there. He’s been on the bike and other cardio but is not back to running yet. And though he was on skates on Wednesday for photoshoots, he didn’t take any strides (though he was tempted).
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He is doing everything in his power to return this season — and he is more than confident he hasn’t played his last game. And as of right now, there are no plans to hang up the skates.
“I’m very optimistic that I’m going to play before the season ends,” Backstrom said. “We’ve got to check off a couple boxes first [before I get back on the ice]. It’s all about strengthening the leg again and making sure it’s getting back to the normal function.
“You want to finish [your career] on your own terms, not because of an injury and feel like you play through stuff that you don’t want to,” he added. “That was a big part of [the surgery]. I’m optimistic that I get to do that now.”
Overall, though, he’s happy again and no longer suffering. And when asked if he’s in a better spot than last year, he smiled and answered quickly.
“100 percent,” he said before walking away.