Ralph Backstrom was a swift skater with a deft scoring touch whose defensive and team-oriented play earned him accolades throughout his career. The most significant years of his pro tenure were spent with the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he won the Stanley Cup six times between 1959 and 1969.
Backstrom spent two seasons with the Montreal Junior Canadiens before graduating to the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens, the Habs' top minor affiliate in Eastern Canada. He captained the team to the Memorial Cup in 1958, when he was arguably the top junior skater in the country. The Canadiens planned to send Backstrom to the Rochester Americans of the AHL for a year of minor pro seasoning, but his performance at training camp was so impressive that the Habs brain trust decided to give him a shot at the big league right away.
Backstrom rewarded Montreal by scoring 40 points and earning the Calder Trophy. His freshman season was so laudable that he received more than double the votes of runner up Carl Brewer of Toronto. The following year he impressed coach Toe Blake by approaching his sophomore training camp with increased dedication and enthusiasm. His production dropped to 28 points, but he solidified his place as a key defensive forward on the club.
Although he was overshadowed by Montreal's top two centers, Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard, Backstrom became an important two-way forward on six Stanley Cup-winning teams. He and teammate Claude Provost garnered reputations as two of the most dogged forwards in the game. Even though he often drew checking assignments, Backstrom produced five 20-goal seasons, including a personal high of 27 in 1961-62. Years later, Backstrom reflected on this period: "There were times in my career that I felt I could have played better statistically if I would have played on another team besides the Canadiens. But there was nothing like the team successes that the Canadiens had during the time I played with them."
By the end of the 1960s, Backstrom sensed that he had accomplished all that he could in a Canadiens uniform. Two prolonged scoring slumps underscored his frustration. One in fact lasted 20 games in 1968-69. A high point occurred on April 10, 1969, when he scored the first overtime winner of his career in the opening game of the semifinals against Boston.
During the 1970 off-season, it became apparent that Backstrom wanted a change of scenery, preferably on the West Coast. The thought of returning to Montreal as a role player was so discouraging to him that he notified the team that he'd likely retire. Backstrom had a change of heart and reported for training camp but his uncertainty remained and came to a head when he left the Canadiens on the eve of their 1970-71 season opener. He eventually returned to the team but was used sparingly.
Backstrom received his requested move when he was involved in a notorious transaction between Montreal and Los Angeles. In May 1970 Habs general manager Sam Pollock acquired the Oakland Seals' first-round pick with the hope that they'd finish last overall and give him a chance to draft junior star Guy Lafleur. Halfway through the 1970-71 season, it was clear that the L.A. Kings were having a sufficiently bad season to challenge for the first pick in the draft. Consequently, Backstrom was sent west in a move that gave him a new lease on life and boosted the Kings in the NHL standings.In February 1973 he was acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks, for whom he scored the last six of his 278 regular-season NHL goals. That year also represented the seventh time in his career that Backstrom reached the 20-goal mark.
Prior to the 1973-74 season, Backstrom signed with the crosstown rival Cougars of the World Hockey Association. That first year he scored 83 points and won the Paul Deneau Trophy as the WHA's most gentlemanly player. A few weeks later, he was invited to join the WHA All-Star Team that was being assembled to represent Canada in the 1974 series against the USSR. Skating on a line with Gordie and Mark Howe, Backstrom performed superbly and was one of the top forwards in the competition with eight points in as many games. Backstrom registered a disappointing 39 points for the Cougars in 1974-75 and was left exposed in the off-season WHA Expansion Draft. He was claimed by the Denver Spurs but spent only half the season there before a trade brought him to the New England Whalers. Backstrom's last pro season was a 48-point effort for the Whalers in 1976-77.