No St. Louis Blue cared more or worked harder than David Backes. I’m not saying Backes was more dedicated than the Plagers, Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Ryan O’Reilly or Alex Pietrangelo. I’m not saying Backes had a bigger heart than anyone. Or that he was tougher than the rest.
No. But if we assess the time-honored hockey virtues, Backes would be tied for first in all categories. Not the statistics. But the character, the competitiveness, the devotion to his duty. The intensity, the honesty, the labor principle.
The David Backes hat trick.
The former Blues captain will likely be in the Anaheim lineup Wednesday night at Enterprise Center when the Blues try to churn more momentum and extend their 8-3-1 run over the last 11 games.
Backes, 37, is in the final countdown of his 15-year career. The final days. The final game. The final shift. He isn’t 100 percent committed to retiring after the season, but let’s just say the chances are about 99%.
We can tell by the rising level of emotion and reflection around him. When Backes played his final home game for Anaheim on April 24, his parents were there for the occasion along with his wife and kids. He’ll have family in the stands again tonight for his St. Louis Farewell. You don’t do that unless you’re winding down on a sentimental journey near the end of a career.
The Backes-STL alliance is a bond that can’t be broken. He may have spent three-plus seasons in Boston, and part of two seasons in Anaheim. But Backes was drafted by the Blues, came into the NHL as a Blue, played in 727 regular-season games for the Blues. He proudly wore the Blue Note while scoring 206 of his 248 career regular-season goals. He wore that beautiful Blues’ emblem while compiling 82% of his 727 career regular-season points.
Backes competed in 49 bruising postseason battles while leading the Blues, engaging the likes of Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton, Mikko Koivu and Jason Spezza in fierce matchups. And when Backes had his only chance to win a Stanley Cup, naturally the Blues were involved. But he was on the other side, having signed a massive five-year deal with Boston before the 2016-2017 season.
The Blues defeated Boston in the seven-game 2019 Stanley Cup final. It was a sad time for Backes, who watched helplessly as a healthy scratch for the final three games. His old team beat the Bruins. Backes still bled blue. He always will. For 10 seasons he ached for the Blues to win the Stanley Cup — but he felt the pain again when the Blues won it without him.
Speaking of the Blues-Bruins series during a recent interview with Anaheim media, Backes said “It would have been nice if they could have won it the year after and we would have won it that year.”
Only six men have played more regular-season games for the Blues than Backes: Federko, Barret Jackman, Sutter, Alex Steen, Pietrangelo and Brett Hull. Backes ranks 7th in Blues history in goals and points.
I’m certain he is most proud of this: over a five-season stretch — from 2011-12 through 2015-2016 — the Blues led the NHL regular-season wins (230), points (496) and points percentage (.660.) They allowed the second-fewest goals, and had the second-best goal differential.
Backes was at the center of all of that — in his position, and through his leadership as captain. No, the Blues didn’t win the Cup during the five successful seasons that were shattered in the postseason. But the consistent winning made this one of the very best Blues teams of any era. Backes and the boys couldn’t capture the Cup, but this was one helluva hockey team. Backes was the marrow and the muscle.
Future Hall of Famer Ken Hitchock coached that team. He recently talked to The Athletic about Backes, and the young captain’s passion for fulfilling the role to the highest possible standard.
“He wanted to know what he needed to do with the team,: Hitchcock said, referring to his early days as Blues coach. “He wanted to be educated as a leader. And he wanted all of the information so that he could help change the culture immediately.
“The team was in the ditch. We were in last place in the division and then we went to first place inside of 2 ½ weeks. David took everything that I told him a leader had to do very seriously. He educated himself on the ice. He educated himself off the ice. I gave him reading material to help him. He took that very seriously. He helped engage a very quick turnaround because he bought into everything we were doing. And it was impressive. He was at a stage in his career where he wanted to change. And he wanted the team to change. He was just looking for all the information he could get to help.”
Backes gave maximum effort in his commitment to winning and leading. This honorable pursuit wasn’t rewarded with a Stanley Cup, and that’s a shame. But what can you do? Well, Backes did everything. And it still wasn’t enough.
“I think the thing that impressed you about David was the fact that he knew he had a job to do that was not going to be very easy and he made it as uncomfortable for the guy he was playing against as he could,” Hitchcock told The Athletic. “And he did it with a lot of personal sacrifice. He gave it, but he took it, too. He took some beatings for the role that he had in those playoff runs.”
That’s all in the past. Not that Backes will be forgotten. Not in St. Louis. Not by the Blues or their fans. Not by the teammates who followed his unshakeable, unwavering lead.
When discussing the challenge of being a team captain, Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier said this: “As a captain, I think it’s important that the players really know who you are and what you stand for, what your beliefs are, and to be consistent in those if things are going good or things are going bad.”
That’s David Backes.
Backes as the captain of the St. Louis Blues.
“What I hope it is, is that I’m a guy that put my work boots on and played the game the right way,” Backes said after the final home game at Anaheim. “Tried to help my team win every game … just kind of an all-around (player), whatever was required of me or asked of me. Willing to do with every ounce of my body to help our team be better. If that’s what is said most about me, I’d be very proud of that sort of legacy to leave.”
Backes hasn’t played much in the last phase of his career. But instead of sulking and stewing, he’s been fully invested in mentoring Anaheim’s young players, earning praise from the team’s coaches and executives. Unselfish to the end. A true leader until the end.
Backes soon will take those worn-down work boots off and head into retirement. There will be more time with his family. More time for his charitable endeavors. More time for taking on new pursuits.
The Captain will finally rest. His body can heal. His competitive wiring can cool down. But his heartbeat will remain as strong as his special place in Blues history.
Thank you, David Backes.
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.