SAN JOSE -- His eyes were the first thing you noticed, a shade or two lighter than St. Louis blue, red-rimmed and watery and dim. His feelings were there, on the surface, swirling through sweat and skin and a beard that was supposed to grow two weeks longer.
The regret was tangible.
There is no saying what the future is for David Backes, a man soon to be without a contract with the team he captains, a man without a game to play Friday. His season ended Wednesday, along with that of his St. Louis Blues, in a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, as the Sharks took the series 4-2. He seemed not quite ready to believe it.
"Damn," Backes said. "Two more wins and you're playing for that ultimate prize."
Video: STL@SJS, Gm6: Sharks advance with win, shake hands
The eyes looked lost, then wistful. He saw it there in front of him, a chance, a hope, a wish that was close enough that he let himself sink into it, fully and completely. It had taken him nearly 40 minutes to emerge from the hidden places of SAP Center, to stand in an empty room and voice the emotions that overwhelmed him.
He held it together for the first two questions, through talk of the end of this season, through talk of his long and frustrating tenure in St. Louis, on a team that had disappointed him and its fans nearly since he arrived in town as a rookie a decade ago.
Then he broke.
"He'll kill me for telling you this story, but …" He took a breath. "Game 5, I'm not feeling well and Steve Ott brings me …" His voice thickened. "Something to help me feel better…"
The tears welled.
"Knowing that he's the guy coming out of the lineup if I can play, that's pretty selfless, and that's the kind of guys we have in here."
A tear rolled out of his left eye, down his check, along the side of his nose.
"Just stories like that," he said.
They had gotten closer than they had in 15 years, the last time the Blues made the conference final, the last time the Stanley Cup was this real. But it ended, again, without a title, without a celebration, six wins short.
There is only so long that a hockey player gets, only so many chances. Some are spoiled. Some, like those in St. Louis during the past 10 years, over the early exits and frustration and broken sticks and broken bones and losses before they were ready, are not. Backes has not been.
Video: Hitchcock on losing WCF series, reflects on season
But this year? This year was different. The Blues won Game 7s in the first round and the second round, going too many games when they should have put teams away, as coach Ken Hitchcock admitted. But still, this year. This was it. This was going to be it.
And then it wasn't, the end coming with the force of a freight train.
Thus the tears, the first after a hockey game for Backes in perhaps, 11 years, 12 years, since the end of college, since one sort of hockey mortality was first felt.
David Backes turned 32 during this playoff run, scoring a game-winning goal to celebrate the day in the best way possible. He must have felt invincible then.
That was over now, as he stood surrounded by the detritus of a hockey season, by sweat-stained gear and moldering jerseys and disappointment.
"Man," he said. "The stop is pretty sudden."
He had never been this far. Many of his teammates never had been this far. They never had believed in this way because they never had allowed themselves to believe. They never had been quite good enough.
It had been so long. They had fallen so short.
Not this year. It wasn't going to happen this year.
And then it did, as the better, less-battered Sharks took over, raced to a four-goal lead in Game 6, as an arena started to finally trust its home team. The Blues fell away, despite a two-goal flurry in the waning minutes. They fell away.
"They got the job done," Backes said. "We didn't. They're moving on to try for a Cup. And we're here."
He turned away at the end. He left the room. It was empty, again. The equipment would be packed up, shipped to St. Louis and unloaded again. The players too. And then they would disperse, their legacy sealed, their hearts broken, their future uncertain.