Flames’ Backlund set to join exclusive company with latest milestone

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The timing proved to be a bonus for a number of reasons.

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As Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund nears another major milestone in his career, his mother Ann-Mari happens to be visiting from Sweden.

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A happy coincidence.

“Before the season we were just looking at the schedule to try and fit everyone and that was the date that worked for both of us,” Backlund said. “And then around mid-season we started counting and were like, ‘Oh yeah, that could be 900 games if you’re here.’ She was super excited about it and so was I.”

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It gets better.

Because Saturday’s showdown with the San Jose Sharks is a rare afternoon event in the Saddledome — a 2 p.m. puck drop.

That means two of Backlund’s biggest little fans, his almost four-year-old daughter Tillie and his two-year-old son Oliver, will be present when their father joins an exclusive club.

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“Our kids are like me, they like to go to bed early,” beamed Backlund. “So they don’t come to all our games. You only come to a few of them, so it’s very special every time they’re here.”

‘Extra Special’ is an apt description for this one.

When the 34-year-old Backlund steps onto the ice on Saturday, he will become only the third skater in franchise history to record 900 regular-season appearances in the Flaming C crest. He joins two former teammates, Jarome Iginla and Mark Giordano, on this list.

There haven’t been many smiles in the Saddledome lately, not when the locals plunged into wonderland in the Western Conference playoff race, but this individual achievement is certainly worth celebrating.

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It’s, as Darryl Sutter summed it up, “pretty awesome”.

In fact, it was Sutter who announced Backlund’s name in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft while he was general manager at Cowtown. A few years later, when the Pivot prospect thought he was ready for primetime, he gave him a plane ticket.

“I came here and Darryl and Brent[Sutter]said to me, ‘Yeah, you’re going to Abbotsford to study defense,'” Backlund recalled with a huge grin. “There was no choice. If I wanted to play in the NHL, there was a way.”

There was only one NHL jersey for Backlund, who did as the bosses ordered and proved he could be a trusty two-way guy. All that’s changed is that he now has an “A” sewn near his heart. He’s a key leader in the dressing room – if you picked the C of Red he’d be the likeliest choice for captain – and has been Calgary’s most consistent forward this season. With nine games to go, he needs just four points to equal his previous career high of 53.

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“I hadn’t seen his mother since the draft (2007). I also had a good visit with her,” said Sutter after training on Friday. “You know, it’ll be over quickly. And he’s having a damn good year. It could be his best year in terms of numbers and performance. It speaks volumes about him.”

His teammates also speak glowingly.

Dillon Dube, almost a decade younger than Backlund, called him “one of the best professional people I know”.

“Off the rink, in this community … They say it about guys a lot, but you can’t stress enough how important he is to this town and this team,” Dube said. “The guy cares so much about his team and this city that you come every day and look up to him and want to follow him. I know he helped us a lot for a lot of younger guys like Mang (Andrew Mangiapane) and Razzy (Rasmus Andersson) and me. And if we can be here long, you basically want to be who he was for this organization.”

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It should be noted that despite a visit from his proud mother and an early puck drop, the timing of this latest milestone isn’t quite ideal for Backlund.

He hoped, still does, that his 900th would come as a refresher for a Stanley Cup run. He’s only made the playoffs in five of his last 13 seasons.

Saturday brings some celebration despite the looming likelihood of another early exit.

“I never thought or expected that I would play 900 games for an organization,” Backlund said. “I feel very privileged and it feels very special. Being the third player to do this alongside Jarome and Gio makes it even more special. These are very special players – a Hall of Famer, a Norris Trophy winner – so I feel a little special to be at the same club soon too.

“I’m very grateful that Calgary stayed with me and that I’m still here and playing for them.”

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