After a recent practice at Honda Center, David Backes took a second to catch his breath. Sweat was dripping down his face at a rapid rate creating a large pool beneath his feet. He'd just finished a taxing skate - one of many over the past week - with the intention of getting the 35-year-old forward back into game shape. He last played in a game on Jan. 9 and appeared in 16 games with the Boston Bruins this season before he was acquired by the Ducks, along with defenseman Axel Andersson and a first-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft for right wing Ondrej Kase on Feb. 21.
There are some who think his playing career is all but over, but the easy-going Minneapolis, Minnesota native is out to prove those doubters wrong.
"Those stories, when brought to my attention, certainly fuel my fire when there's an opportunity to cop out or a normal training session is over," Backes says. "There's a little bit of gas left in the tank to give a little bit more. There's drive left in this body. I've seen a lot of things in this league. I want to prove, with opportunity, I can still be a very viable player. A productive player on a team that can win a lot of games."
Backes will get that opportunity tonight when he makes his Ducks debut against the New Jersey Devils. He'll wear No. 21 and center a line with Nicolas Deslauriers and Carter Rowney. All three players have size (Backes is 6-5, 215, Deslauriers 6-3, 219 and Rowney 6-1, 208), snarl and a tremendous amount of grit.
"My MO for a long time has been a gritty, sandpaper guy that likes to get opponents off their games," Backes says. "I like to work in the corners and own the front of the net. That type of player. Good on the walls, something I think is relevant. Owning your space."
With how fast the game has become over the years, Backes knows he can't simply use his size and physicality to gain an edge. "I've been working the last few years on getting up and down the ice and making sure I'm not falling behind because the newer generation seems to be extremely fast and skilled," Backes says. "Trying to play a well-rounded game, but you can counteract some of that speed and skill with grit and predictability you can have with your linemates if you're all on the same page and knowing what the next play is going to be."
Backes admits it was hard not to take it personal when Boston assigned him to Providence of the American Hockey League in January. As a veteran of 14 NHL seasons, Backes knows he still has gas left in the tank at the highest level. "It was a situation where I was trying to be objective with it," he says. "I'll obviously have a personal bias because it's myself I'm evaluating. I reached out to quite a few objective sources to say, Hey, what's this look like? I know the player is the last one to know they're probably done, but is this something I should be contemplating or something where I can have a great effect? The overwhelming majority was the latter. You still have gas in the tank.
"With the right situation and method of play and opportunity, you can still be a good player in this league," Backes continues. "I'm looking to still establish that and get it back. On the other side of that, it's the ability to influence younger guys with setting a work ethic standard. How to carry yourself, how to be a pro and a good person with a grateful heart for every opportunity you've been given. This is an opportunity I've been given and I'm extremely grateful."
He was a leader in St. Louis and brought it to Boston when he signed there as a free agent in July 2016. He's hoping to do the same here in Anaheim, organically. "Getzy [Ryan Getzlaf] is a guy I've bumped heads with quite a few times," he says with a big laugh. "A conversation certainly warranted with him. The schedule has been a little wonky since I've been here, so having a sit-down with him saying how can we work together to accomplish something every day to make this team better so the outlook going forward is brighter and better. We'll figure that out in time. It's not something that's magical. It's a work in progress."
Backes says one way to provide guidance is leading is by example. "It starts with that and doing it myself," he says. "From there, you gain a little bit of equity with guys to challenge them to jump right behind you. I'm sure Getz is going to be the engine on this train. I could maybe not be the No. 2 car, but somewhere in the line. Find your way. As long as he's setting that standard, we're all following right behind it, and it can be a powerful momentum to establishing an identity and a successful one."
Off the ice, Backes is heavily involved in community initiatives. Earlier today, he sent out this tweet:
He and his wife, Kelly, are big into animal rescue. "We have our own charity that we run. It's called Athletes for Animals," he says. "We have two other board members, so it's the four of us getting things done. It's not a physical shelter. It's a support group. We either raise funds or we network with other professional athletes to speak out for animal welfare initiatives in their areas. Try to broker those relationships and expedite that time they spend so it's efficient and they can have the biggest impact on the cause. We started in 2013. We've been able to do our own thing working with animals on a volunteer basis since college, around 2003 or 2004. I'm dating myself a little bit, but love the cause and love the speak up for those without a voice."