Hockey / Sports

David Backes follows footsteps of previous Blues Olympians

The year was 2006 and the Blues were gathering for physicals, followed by the start of training camp, David Backes' first with the organization.

"I can remember like it was yesterday," Backes said. "There came Dougie Weight through the hallways, him and Billy Guerin and Keith Tkachuk. It felt like it was an out-of-body experience almost. They were perennial Olympians, they were the guys that grew USA hockey. That's who I watched growing up and now I'm rubbing elbows with them, trying to soak in everything that they were saying."

Backes hoped that mimicking their moves might lead to a prosperous NHL career, never considering that one day he could be adorned with the Blues' captaincy or have a remote chance at following Weight, Guerin and Tkachuk onto the world stage.

But now 29 and in his eighth season, his third wearing the "C," and on the cusp of his second Olympics, Backes is one of those guys. After helping Team USA win a silver medal in 2010, he will return to the international ice with Blues teammates T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk on Thursday, when the Americans open against Slovakia.

"He was a great kid to have around," said Tkachuk, whose mentoring early on included having Backes stay at his family's home. "Obviously we did something right because he's having a heck of year and he's having a heck of a career so far. He was nice to have around, a very polite kid. Although he doesn't seem polite on the ice, and that's why I love watching him play."

This season, Backes ranks second on the Blues with 20 goals and has 42 points in 52 games, and illustrating the lack of manners that Tkachuk touched on, he is ninth in the NHL in hits with 179.

A "no-brainer to make Team USA's roster again according to management, Backes arrived in Sochi on Monday and found himself centering a line with Oshie and Minnesota's Zach Parise. That is a reflection of Backes' skill and his appointment to the club's leadership group this year is a reflection of his professionalism.

"What's not to like in terms of his play and his personality?" said U.S. general manager David Poile, who is also GM of the Nashville Predators. "Of course I had the fortune -- good or bad, however you want to look at it -- playing the Blues the last couple of years, so I've certainly seen how his career has established itself and the effect that he has on every game we play. It's not a day in the park when you're playing against a David Backes. He's going to be a real important player for us in this tournament."

Backes was a newbie at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, starting on the fourth line, and his jitters showed in the hours leading up to Team USA's first game against Switzerland.

"I don't know if I've told many people this, but before NHL games, I'm the kind of guy that likes to relax," he said. "I don't do a ton of stretching. If I get too worked up, I lose my mind out there."

But Backes was dealing with an abundance of energy and didn't know what to do with himself. A dozen or so U.S. players were kicking a soccer ball but that's never been part of Backes' routine.

"So I did like a 30-minute workout for some reason," he said. "After I was done, I was like, 'What the heck did I just do?' I got on the ice and all of the sudden I'm cramping before the first game of the Olympics."

Backes gathered himself quickly, though, scoring a goal in a 3-1 victory over the Swiss. He would follow with an assist in a 6-1 win against Norway and another in a 5-3 triumph over Canada, producing three points while receiving only half the ice time that he was seeing with the Blues (18 minutes, 18 seconds).

"I gained a respect for the guys that play (limited minutes) on our team because it's tougher to stay involved, stay effective," Backes said. "It was a different role but I went in there saying, 'I'm happy to be here, I'm in the lineup, I'm playing on the Olympic stage.' "

But that feeling of being along for the ride changed quickly when the U.S. rallied from a two-goal deficit and found itself in overtime with Canada in the gold-medal game.

"We got one on the power play and then (Parise) scores with 30 seconds left in regulation," Backes said, "and it goes to 'We're a team of fate.'"

In OT, however, Sidney Crosby altered that fate, beating U.S. goalie Ryan Miller for a 3-2 final, capturing gold for the Canadians.

"It's almost like all that work was slapped in your face," Backes said. "(But) you look back four years later and you say, 'I've got an Olympic silver medal.' Would I love it to be gold? For sure. But it's the way it's written and I get another chance at it."

Backes has another opportunity because of the individual impact he made in Vancouver.

"He did a lot of the grunt work and was a big catalyst, so this year he's going to probably have the same kind of role but on a much larger scale," said Ottawa's Bobby Ryan, Backes' Team USA linemate four years ago. "With what he did in 2010, his likability as a household name went up ten-fold. That was kind of a breakout for him, those games, and he's carried it through. That's all a testament to what a pro he is day in and day out."

Players, including young ones in the Blues' locker room, are starting to see Backes today in the same vein that he viewed Weight, Guerin and Tkachuk years ago.

"I honestly don't look at myself like one of those guys," Backes said. "That has a lot to do with my upbringing, blue-collar parents that really had to work for everything. I didn't do this all on my own. People sacrificed for me ... noticing me or putting their neck on the line to draft me or sign me. So there's no reason for me to boast and think I'm better than anyone else. For me to put the guy who cleans our locker room at night, for us to not think of him as equal to everyone in the locker room, is a disservice to the gift that we've been given.

"So there may be a little bit of that -- guys looking up to me -- but I want them to look up to me and say, 'That's a guy that no matter how much success he has, he keeps relating to where he came from and knows it could end tomorrow.' We're going to take that cape off that people seem to think that we have when we're professional athletes and go back to living a normal life. And recalling that you were a good person while you had that status, I think, is something that's important."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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