SUN Hockey Pool

Swedish Rocket soaring

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

A few months ago, a practice meant a case of the grumps for Mikael Backlund.

Now, it's a time to smile and laugh while working. Amazing what a move across the Atlantic has done for him.

As he practised at the Saddledome with the Kelowna Rockets earlier this week in anticipation of last night's game in Red Deer and tonight's showdown against the Calgary Hitmen, Backlund was grinning from ear to ear. The Calgary Flames' top prospect admits he wasn't laughing often when he was skating for his hometown Vasteras team in Sweden.

"Outside of hockey, I had a good life, but every time I came to the rink for practices, I felt bad," he said. "I didn't want to practise and you have to practise to get better. It's the best decision I've made. I'm so happy I'm here."

It was a controversial decision, but he obviously made the right move.

Backlund -- drafted by the Flames in the first round, 24th overall, in 2007 -- had his choice of where to play after Calgary's training camp.

He could have gone to the WHL Rockets or returned home for one last year with the men's club in the country's No.-2 league.

He went to Sweden, figuring a strong playoff performance last season would mean top-line opportunities. Instead, he struggled, received a reduced role and ended up miserable, with the only reason for hope the World Juniors.

He excelled in Ottawa, helping Sweden to a silver medal, then decided to not go home. He packed his bags for Kelowna, other than a quick stopover with the Flames.

It's been a boon for him and the Rockets.

Backlund, a 6-foot-1, 194-lb. centre, collected 23 points in 21 games prior to last night's game. The Rockets have climbed the standings, too, compiling a 14-5-2 mark since his arrival.

Backlund, who admittedly still has adjustments to make to his game in North America, has fit in just fine.

"It felt like he didn't want to step on anyone's toes," said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. "He wanted to feel himself out, and since then he's comfortable as ever and he's producing and playing very well.

"Every time we play one of the better teams in the Western League, he's usually one of the better guys on the ice. I think it's just a matter of him being consistently being one of the better guys on the ice. He has that ability."

Certainly, tonight's clash is a big test. Backlund's progress has been monitored closely by the Flames, but everybody will be curious to see how he fares against the WHL's top-ranked team.

"He's excited to play here," Huska said.

"He knows that Calgary watches him play a lot and I know he wants to have a good showing."

He won't predict big things from himself, but does for the Rockets.

"It's going to be a good test for us to play against probably the best team," he said.

"We beat Vancouver, I hope -- I think -- we can beat Calgary, too."

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos