The six-time Stanley Cup winner won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1958-59, finishing with 18 goals and 40 points while centering Montreal’s third line. That’s about as high as he was going to get on a team that had future Hall of Famers Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard centering its top two lines.
On another team, Backstrom would certainly have been a top-six forward, maybe the No. 1 center. But on the Canadiens of the late 1950s and 1960s, he had to settle for being a depth player – and did it brilliantly. Despite seeing limited power-play time with Montreal, he had five 20-goal seasons and eight with at least 40 points.
Depth Role Suited Backstrom Perfectly
In all, Backstrom played 1,032 NHL games for the Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Black Hawks from 1956-57 to 1972-73, finishing with 639 points (278 goals, 361 assists). He won the Cup with the Canadiens in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969.
The native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, also played four seasons in the World Hockey Association before hanging up his skates in 1977. But his life in hockey was far from over; after retiring as a player, Backstrom coached the University of Denver and in the minor leagues, scouted for the St. Louis Blues from 1999-2002, then founded the Central Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles. The CHL is long gone, but the Eagles moved into the ECHL and are now as the American Hockey League affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche.
He also served as commissioner of Roller Hockey International, the league he co-founded in 1993.
Backstrom was a blue-chip prospect who grew up wanting to play for the Canadiens. Montreal signed him as a 17-year-old, and he captained the Memorial Cup-winning Hull-Ottawa Canadiens in 1957. After a couple of brief stays with the big club, he made the Canadiens to stay at training camp in the fall of 1958.
“It was an eye-opener, stepping onto the ice with those guys,” Backstrom told NHL.com in October 2020 of his early years in Montreal. “I think any young player felt intimidated, going into that dressing room and playing with the Canadiens, and against the great players on other teams. It was a wonderful experience that I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
Helping His Old Team Land Lafleur
Backstrom played on the last two of Montreal’s Cup-winning teams in 1959 and 1960, then was part of the mid-60s teams that won four championships in five seasons beginning in 1964-65. He wound up figuring in a third Canadiens dynasty after being traded to the Kings 16 games into the 1970-71 season by giving Los Angeles a spark with 13 goals and 27 points in 33 games after the trade, helping the Kings finish ahead of the Oakland Seals.
Montreal general manager Sam Pollock had acquired the Seals’ first-round pick in the 1971 NHL Draft, and Oakland’s last-place finish in the league standings gave Montreal the first choice, which he used to select Guy Lafleur, the backbone of Montreal’s late-1970s dynasty.
His last visit to Montreal was for the Canadiens’ Centennial game at Bell Centre on Dec. 4, 2009.
“We had a beautiful weekend in Montreal,” Backstrom told the Canadiens’ website in 2013. “The game on the Friday night against the Bruins was great and we had a black-tie affair the next day on the Bell Centre’s floor. It was first-class as everything is in Montreal. It was nice to see the old-timers I played with through the years.”
Backstrom was president and GM of the Eagles until 2007 and remained on the board of directors for several years after that. He was elected to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and was awarded the ECHL’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.