PARK CITY, Utah – David Backes doesn’t have to play hockey.
After all, the St. Louis Blues center is a pretty smart guy. He accumulated a 4.0 grade-point average as an electrical engineering major at Minnesota State University, so in a heartbeat he could hand over his skates and trade the morning practices, back-to-back games and constant travel for a traditional 9-to-5.
But why would he, at least right now?
“There’s a joy of playing a kids’ game on a high level with buddies and doing what you really love to do,” he said on Monday from the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah. “Even if I wasn’t playing at this level, I’d be playing at a local rink, getting some exercise.
“There’s nothing like skating out on the rink and having the wind blow through your hair, trying to make some plays and giving each other a hard time. That’s what the joy of the sport is about, is back to that youth sort of culture where you’re just having fun with your friends. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re learning life lessons, and that will prepare you for future endeavors in lie.”
Following his passion seems to be working out.
Backes, a second-round pick in the 2003 National Hockey League Entry Draft, has led the Blues to back-to-back Stanley Cup playoffs appearances in 2012 and 2013. He is also pursuing a spot on Team USA for the second consecutive Olympic Winter Games in February, after he helped the U.S. win a silver medal in 2010 in Vancouver.
Going into the 2013-14 season, the Blues are emerging as a trendy pick by some experts to win the new seven-team Central Division. Meanwhile, Backes says he and the other U.S. players are determined to move up that “one spot” to a gold medal at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Team USA came oh-so-close to winning a gold medal in Vancouver, only to lose to the hosts Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game.
“There is a little bit of extra thirst and hunger from being so close to reaching that medal that we were looking for,” Backes said. “That’s going to fuel that fire to elevate us to the next level and improve one spot, which we’re looking to do from management to player to coaches to anyone who can facilitate us as athletes. We’re all on board and ready to roll.”
At 29, Backes is one of the veterans on the U.S. player pool. Earlier this summer, USA Hockey invited 48 players to Washington, D.C., for a national team training camp. Sixteen of those players returned from the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, but thanks to recent success at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, the World Junior Championship and the Men's World Championship, the United States is at no shortage of international experience.
With so much talent, Team USA general manager David Poile said the players’ performance during the first three months of the NHL season will greatly influence the final 25-man roster that will be announced at the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We said to all the players at orientation camp: You are all here because of the body of work you have accomplished, the body of work that you’ve accomplished to this point,” Poile said. “But having said that, it’s real important what you do in October, November and December. We’ve got to take the players who are proving the most, we’ve got to take the players who are playing the best.”
Backes expects to be in that group. The Minneapolis native is coming off a lockout-shortened season in which he scored just six goals but had 22 assists in 48 games. With the 2014 Winter Games “always on your mind,” though, he plans to hit the ice running the season, playing every opponent tough — even if that opponent is a potential Olympic teammate.
“When you play a guy like Dustin Brown, for me I try to hit him harder so he has to sit in front of me on the bus,” Backes joked, noting the mutual respect for all the players in the league.
And that respect for his peers and for the game is a big reason why Backes said he was relieved when an agreement was reached to send NHL players to the Winter Games in 2014 for the fifth consecutive time.
“For me it was imperative,” he said. “For the experience that I had in Vancouver, to not allow the other guys to have that experience, to kind of stifle the will of the game the way you saw it grow in North America with the leadership as high as it was, the growth of the game.
“I returned to St. Louis and random people in restaurants would come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never been a hockey fan, I’ve never watched hockey, but I watched that [gold-medal] game and I’m a hockey fan now.’ And that really is when the scope of that game sunk in for me, for how much impact and how much inspiration potentially can be derived from a sporting event.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.