He might be “one of us,” but with David Backes, the second he laces up those skates, there’s no Minnesota Nice from the Blaine native and former Spring Lake Park High and Minnesota State Mankato standout.
The hard-nosed St. Louis Blues captain has gone after Mikael Granlund and Jared Spurgeon, concussed Darcy Kuemper, got into it with Charlie Coyle, fought Clayton Stoner, picked on Matt Dumba and drawn the ire of his former Olympic teammates, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
“They’re great humans, they’ve been through a lot this year, but we’re not looking to deepen our friendship over the next seven games,” Backes said of Parise and Suter. “They’re looking to end my season just like I’m looking to end their season. We have a lot of good history, but we throw that out the window once the puck drops.”
Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals are in St. Louis on Thursday and Saturday. By the time the series switches to Minnesota next Monday, there’s a good chance Backes will be Public Enemy No. 1 with Wild fans.
He doesn’t care, either.
“I’m not really out there to make friends to tell you the truth,” Backes said. “Having that satisfaction of winning is what we’re looking for. At the end of the series, whoever’s got the better of the other has bragging rights for a little bit. My hometown can’t factor in.
“I’m focused on the task at hand and that’s winning each game we’re playing. At some point, we’re going to be shaking hands when the series ends, and hopefully we’re still playing. The great thing about hockey is you can smile and shake hands and, when it’s all over, have a beverage and talk about the hard-nosed battle that happened.”
Backes’ roots start here in Minnesota. His mom, Karen, works at a local hospital. His dad, Steve, worked on the railroad for 25 years and was a TSA agent after 9/11, and he’s now recently retired. His sister, Melanie, is a nurse.
“They know how integral they were to all of this,” Backes said. “We were a lower-middle-class family. They made a lot of sacrifices so that I could play the game. We know how expensive it is to play. I don’t think they ever thought, or I ever thought, that it would turn into a profession. I have them to thank to get me here.”
He immediately took to hockey, but other sports as well that reflected his personality.
“He always played the hardest, got the dirtiest and had the most fun,” said Jim Carr, Backes’ Little League Baseball coach.
Now, as the Blues’ leader, the 30-year-old badly wants to lead this annual Stanley Cup contender to something special. The Blues have been bounced from the first round in each of the past two seasons, both after leading first-round series’ 2-0.
“We’ve got plenty to prove, there’s no question about it,” Backes said. “We’ve had shortcomings in the past few years. We feel we have a deeper team, a more prepared team, a team that’s playing better hockey, and healthier than we have been in the last few years in the playoffs. So it’s time to put all those things to fruition and show what we can do.”
The Blues are so deep, Backes — a two-time 30-goal scorer and three-time 20-goal scorer — is centering the third line with Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund. Fellow Olympian Kevin Shattenkirk is on the Blues’ third defense pair.
The Wild knows it will be a challenge facing a player such as Backes, who, as Suter said, “goes after everyone.”
The Blues’ game plan will be to try to punish the Wild physically. But the 6-3, 220-pound Backes said, “They may be a little undersized compared to us, but it’s not like they’re soft and just pretty little dainty players that want to make cute plays.
“They play hard, they’re leaning on you, there’s no free ice out there for either team.”
Wild players, however, might need to ignore Backes if he goes after them after whistles.
“When you’re braced for something, it’s easier for you to deal with it when it happens,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “So for us to say that we’re going to go stick somebody after him and tell him to stop doing it, I think he’s going to continue doing it.
“So you have to make sure you play around it. It will be a factor and it won’t be an easy thing to do. He’s a great hockey player and obviously a big physical presence who makes his presence felt every single shift. If you’re good enough, if you’re strong enough, then you can find a way to play around it.”