David Backes' heart never left St. Louis, and that was never more evident than on May 5 when he suited up for what would be his final game at Enterprise Center. On Thursday, Backes signed a one-day contract with St. Louis so he could retire as a Blue.
He also penned this heartfelt goodbye to say thank you to everyone who played a part in his storied 15-year NHL career.
I'm a numbers guy.
I liked numbers so much that I was planning on making a career out of them in electrical engineering. That didn't happen, but as God would have it, I ended up making a career where numbers were still important - in the National Hockey League. Hockey is a game with a lot of numbers, stats and analytics, but what I will remember most when I look back on my career are the experiences I was blessed with and the relationships that were created.
How blessed have I been?
I was a pigeon-toed kid from Minnesota without any family connection to the game and somehow I played 15 years in the NHL. I was never the most talented kid on the ice and rarely knew what the next step in my journey would be, but I showed up, gave everything I had and approached the next opportunity with a full heart and open eyes.
In 2003, I remember sitting in the stands alongside my parents at the NHL Draft in Nashville and praying I'd hear my name called. I wasn't sure when that might be or by who, and each selection seemed to agonizingly pass by.
Then it happened.
"With the 62nd pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, St. Louis Blues are proud to select - from the Lincoln Stars of the USHL - David Backes."
I was somehow selected in the second round of the NHL Draft and the seed began to sprout that I may be able to play hockey after college.
After playing three years of college hockey at Minnesota State University - Mankato, I signed a two-year entry-level deal with St. Louis. I didn't stay up with the Blues coming out of that first camp and when I got sent down to the Peoria Rivermen, I needed a roommate. Enter DJ King. DJ was the team's known enforcer and someone I found to be intimidating because of his imposing stature and the fact that he had more toughness in his pinky finger than I did in my whole body. Over the course of that season and spending time with "Kinger," he taught me the importance of mental strength and the game within the game - something I had very little insight on. He always said, "Stand up for yourself and show a strong front and you will own your opponent. Either you own them or they own you." Without him teaching me those lessons, I don't know if I would have had a fraction of the success that I did.
On Dec. 19, 2006, I played in my first NHL game. I remember getting the call from Peoria Rivermen Coach Dave Baseggio the day after I got engaged. Truthfully, when I saw his name on my phone, I thought I was getting sent down to Alaska in the ECHL because I just finished a rough weekend of games in the AHL. Instead, he told me I would be playing in my first NHL game the next night in Pittsburgh. My parents flew in from Minnesota and Kelly, my new fiancée, flew with me. I showed up that night to the old Melon Arena and had butterflies like never before during warm ups and the national anthem. My first shift I got crushed going down the wall, got up, the puck hit me in the glove and went to our team and we scored.
My first home game was two days later in St. Louis. Skating onto the ice, I remember the stands were sparsely filled as the team was in the midst of a rebuild. I was fortunate enough to be playing with one of my idols, Keith Tkachuk (aka Big Walt). Before the game, Walt would always give me a quick run-down of the players on the other team that I should avoid mixing it up with if at all possible, a gesture that helped me survive that first year in the NHL. With Big Walt in his spot at the top of the crease, the puck came to me and I panicked, slapping a backhand to the net through Walt's legs. Somehow it ended up in the net and my first NHL goal was scored against the Los Angeles Kings.
My first year I was in awe of the pros I had only known on TV and video games and tried to be a sponge watching everyone around me. Doug Weight was there as a recent Stanley Cup Champion and showed me how to be a great person who cares for people and teammates. Dallas Drake and Dan Hinote taught me grit and perseverance. Billy Guerin taught me how to make the game fun and keep things light, along with how to compete in every minute. The Tkachuk family let me live with them (until Walt was traded to Atlanta, then he kicked me out). He taught me how to go to the front of the net and own the dirty areas. I was blessed to learn from that group in my first few years in the League.
Not long after I got started with the Blues, I was selected to the USA World Championships teams, which ultimately lead me to representing my country at the 2010 Olympic Games, where we brought home a silver medal. I got the chance again in 2014 to go to Sochi and have another opportunity at Olympic glory. While we finished fourth that year, something I remember most was the unification of fellow athletes and our families that worked together to raise awareness for stray animals. We were able to use our voices on an international platform, and the lives of two lucky dogs were saved as they flew back to the States with us on a chartered 747.
In 2011, I was named the 20th captain in St. Louis Blues history and it is one of the greatest honors in my time playing. Following names like Bob and Barclay Plager, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, Chris Pronger and Wayne Gretzky, I did not take the distinction lightly. With the 'C' on my chest, I considered myself the standard bearer for the team and knew there were going to be times that I had to be the first to lead the charge, times when I had to humble myself to allow others to take the spotlight and times when I would be called upon to right a wrong that was done to a teammate.
The best on-ice memory I have from St. Louis is during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We were once again playing that team from northern Illinois. The narrative was pervasive: we couldn't beat them in the Playoffs. Game 7 at the Scottrade Center was electric. The building had never been louder and we were able to shake their hands while they were dejected and we were elated to be moving on to the second round to play (and beat) Dallas. What a step we took that year, busting through a ceiling we had been under for so long. I remember crying during my postgame interview in San Jose after losing out in the Western Conference Final. I was so proud of our group coming together and sacrificing, and I was crushed that we didn't reach our end goal. In that moment, I had a sobering realization that I may never be able to wear a Blues jersey again.
I had spent 10 seasons in St. Louis, and I had hoped to spend my whole career with one organization, but ultimately I signed in Boston after not being able to come to a mutual agreement with the Blues. I was actually in St. Louis for Alex Pietrangelo's wedding the weekend of July 1, 2016. The groom's dinner was on Thursday night, free agency was Friday at noon eastern and the wedding was Saturday. After signing with Boston on Friday afternoon, Petro was having the guys out to a Cardinals game and we were all enjoying Busch Stadium when the video crew put me on the outfield screen with a thank you message and the crowd responded with a standing ovation.
I thought - are you kidding me?!! I had just left in free agency and I get a standing O? I had chills, and that was the moment that solidified to me the attachment that I had to St. Louis and that St. Louis had to me. The connections to the community and people who are so great around town and had supported me and my family through the years was almost too much to take at that time.
My stretch in Boston is something I am so grateful for. It was an amazing group of men that I was able to play with and grow alongside of. Arriving there and being a complementary piece to the great core that had been there since they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was an incredible learning experience for me. I learned about leading from the rear and was able to pour into teammates in ways I had never been able to do before. Our remarkable march to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 was filled with some of the highest highs and lowest lows I have experienced in the game, but I am appreciative of all of them. I never thought I would so intimately live the words I said when leaving St Louis: "If the team I was playing on wasn't going to win the Stanley Cup, I hoped it would be the Blues."
I found in the latter parts of my time in Boston that you can take something you would never ask for - like being a healthy scratch - and turn it into something good. It was a humbling lesson learned through sport that will permeate through life.
After believing my time in the NHL was over in Year 14, the Anaheim Ducks took a chance on me, "The Old War Horse," as announcer Mike Milbury deemed me during the playoffs the year prior. I was brought in to mentor younger guys and assist with the leadership and culture in Anaheim. During this opportunity I was able to get a second swing at some of the things I had wished I had done more of earlier in my hockey career. I was able to embrace the challenges and struggles, invest completely in the next generation of players and share knowledge with them that would help them, even if that meant it would cost me playing time. With new perspective, I was able to relax and have fun, trying my best but without the pressure of performance expectations.
Video: Blues line up to salute Backes
It ended up that the last game I played in the NHL was in St. Louis, an incredible memory that I will forever cherish. I was back in the place where it all began. The building had a new name, the seats and suites were all upgraded, the locker room was redone and the players had mostly all turned over. Yet the fans in the stands and the people around town and the organization were still warm, kind and claimed me to be one of their own. I was a St. Louis Blue. The night closed with a standing ovation, reminding me of that Cardinals game five years earlier. The current Blues lined up for handshakes. My wife and kids provided a video expressing love and support. My parents were able to make it down to celebrate the occasion. And the butterflies that were there at my first game flew back into my stomach and fluttered around before yielding to postgame tears of gratitude, peace and love.
Video: Backes speaks to Pang after the game
Following my last game, it was clear to me that I needed to retire as a member of the St. Louis Blues. That night reiterated that St. Louis was my home. It is where my wife and I grew into adulthood and it was the organization we needed to retire with. The feeling was mutual with the Blues and I am so humbled that this journey has come full circle for me to end this amazing ride with the same organization that called my name at the draft 18 years ago.
I would like to thank God for the bountiful blessings that have been bestowed on my life and this surreal experience. For all of the amazing people intertwined in my story that have poured into me and helped me make an impact on the communities I have been in. For my health and watching over me as I went onto the ice and traveled across the globe. And for the perspective I have gained through the ups and downs along the way.
I want to thank my wife Kelly, who has stood by my side through this journey, loved me superbly, consoled me through the difficulties, knocked me down a few notches when I got too proud and kept me in line more times than I can count. You have put some of your personal aspirations to the side and supported me during this journey in the most steadfast way. Thank you to my children, Stella and Dawson, you are two of my greatest gifts. You endured not having daddy around so I could live out my dreams and were always happy to see me when I got home. I cannot wait to be more present now to see you grow and flourish. And to my parents, Karen and Steve, thank you for your guidance, endless support and love along the way. Thank you to the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks organizations. Thank you to both of our families, dearest friends, my teammates, trainers, coaches, agents and the devoted fans. What a ride, I am forever grateful for all of you that have made a mark on my journey.
This experience has truly been about the people. All of my teammates and the nights out to dinner, enjoying a cold beer after the game, the times we battled together in the trenches, when we had one another's backs and the countless jokes in the locker room. All of the training staff that repaired my body and prepared my equipment, the countless times they stayed up late so I could get more sleep and got to the rink early so everything would be ready when I arrived. The coaches who believed in me and gave me opportunities to succeed. The opponents who battled for the same prize with a deep mutual respect. The security guards and other service staff that are at the arenas keeping us safe and allowing us to do what we do. The animal welfare communities that welcomed us and supported a shared mission. The people in the cities I played in that supported events and the work Kelly and I have done through our charity, Athletes for Animals. The community and public relations teams for setting up endless opportunities for me to show up and serve, only to turn around and find I was more impacted in return. For the chance to put on a jersey at a local hospital and see a child's face light up, just by displaying the humanity and compassion we are all called to show to each other. I am eternally thankful for the opportunity to be a role model for the next generation and being able to influence those who look up to me. To all of the people I have encountered and relationships that have been developed, my appreciation is heartfelt and lifelong.
And now we are here, my NHL chapter has concluded.
The game got faster and younger and I haven't been associated with either of those adjectives in a long time.
My final goal was to play 1,000 games, but I came up 35 short.
In the end, it's not that all these numbers don't matter - they do, and I am damn proud of them. But the metrics that mean the most to me are the countless experiences and everlasting relationships that the game provided me.
That's what I find is beyond measure.
Fans can bid on autographed game-worn equipment and jerseys from David Backes' time with the St. Louis Blues now through Saturday, Sept. 11 at noon. Proceeds from the auction will benefit Athletes for Animals. Visit blues.givesmart.com or text BLUES to 76278 to bid.