Mathias Backstrom was scrolling through YouTube videos one day about three years ago when he came across some highlights from college hockey games in the United States.
“I saw a couple of videos and it looked pretty cool,” said Backstrom, a native of Malmo, Sweden. “For two or three years that was my dream, to come over here and play college hockey. For me to come here and play junior hockey first is the best step for me in order to move on to college later.”
Backstrom’s dream has been the Rochester Grizzlies’ gain.
Austin Bruins coach Steve Howard spotted Backstrom at a showcase last summer and thought the 5-feet-8, 160-pounder would be a perfect fit for the Grizzlies.
Backstrom’s size, coupled with the North American Hockey League’s rules on European players -- NAHL teams are only allowed four European players, or “imports,” on their rosters -- may be the only things that have kept him from moving up to an NAHL team such as Austin this season.
“He’s undersized for a goalie so he has to compete harder,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. “Me and (Grizzlies assistant Mike Aikens) were talking and, Mathias is getting interest from colleges now. One college coach was asking if Mathis is coming back (to the Grizzlies) next year, but our stance is ‘he’s ready to go.’”
Backstrom has certainly shown his readiness to play at the next level.
Monday he was named the North American 3 Hockey League Goalie of the Month for December, when he went 4-0-0 with a .948 save percentage and a 1.23 goals-against average. For the season, the 19-year-old is 11-3-0 with the best GAA in the entire league (1.41) and the third-best save percentage (.941).
“It’s in his best interest to move on if someone has a spot for him,” Ratzloff said. “He might have a few things working against him that are out of his control, as far as playing at that next level, but compete-wise, he’s there and he’s definitely ready to play college hockey, for sure.”
Backstrom’s coaches say his work ethic sets him apart.
“He works all the time,” said Grizzlies goalies coach Keegan Asmundson, who played Division I hockey at Canisius College, then played five seasons of pro hockey. “When it’s not convenient or nobody else wants to, he’s putting the work in and he’s getting rewarded for all that hard work.
“He just competes, competes on every puck. He has very good positioning, like most Swedish goalies do. He can make the hard saves look easy. He’s very poised, very athletic, a natural. He just competes, that’s the No. 1 thing.”
Backstrom spent the past five seasons playing the Malmo Redhawks organization, moving from the U162 level as a 14-year-old up to the SuperElit level -- the highest level of junior hockey in Sweden -- last season.
“It was a pretty high level that I played at, at home,” Backstrom said. “Of course with the smaller rink here, it makes the game a little bit different, a little faster, they can shoot from everywhere. That’s been a little change that I had to get used to at the beginning of the season, but right now I just feel really confident in my game and I feel that I’ve settled in pretty good.”
MYLYMOK COMMITS TO ALASKA
Connor Mylymok has been in and out of the Austin Bruins lineup this season. But when the 6-foot-1, 200-pound forward has been healthy and on the ice, he has produced.
And college coaches have noticed.
On Monday, Mylymok announced his commitment to play for Division I University of Alaska.
Mylymok has five goals and 12 points in 14 games this season for the Bruins, who are 5-0-2 in their past seven games and haven’t lost a game in regulation since Dec. 6.
“Connor has been one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever coached,” Bruins head coach Steve Howard said of Mylymok, who started this season with Youngstown of the USHL. “He’s worked extremely hard to get better and continues that everyday. Alaska Fairbanks will be getting a great player and one the best leaders that we’ve had here in Austin.”
Bruins forward Dante Sheriff, who committed to Division I Mercyhurst earlier this season, was named the North American Hockey League Central Division Star of the Week on Monday.
Sheriff scored two goals and added three assists in two games last weekend as Austin swept two games at Bismarck.
Austin (17-9-6) is tied for third place in the division and plays three games against St. Cloud this week — at St. Cloud on Thursday and Saturday, and at Austin on Friday.