There is a disgraceful situation unfolding with the Boston Bruins in which the entire management group, from owner Jeremy Jacobs to president Cam Neely to general manager Don Sweeney to head coach Bruce Cassidy, should be ashamed of themselves.
So should David Backes. Because of age and injuries, he is no longer one of the NHL’s better power forwards, so Backes made what he calls a “calculated decision” to become a goon in order to preserve his spot in the lineup. In his past five games, Backes has had three fights. This despite a history of concussions over his 13 seasons in the league.
“If I’m going to stay a part of this team and stay a part of a winning team, that’s maybe going to be part of my role,” Backes told The Athletic earlier this week after a fight with Michael Ferland of the Carolina Hurricanes. “I’m okay with it. It’s sticking up for each other. It’s sticking together. It’s a staple of what we do here.”
Bruins management is okay with it, too. Well, more than okay, Cassidy told the media.
“We really appreciate that as a staff, and the players do, too,” Cassidy said. “That he’s putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team, and that’s leadership.”
Backes, who will turn 35 on May 1 and has two seasons after this one left on a contract that pays US$6-million a year, may also feel the need to give the Bruins at least some value on a deal that has not worked out to the team’s benefit. He signed a five-year contract in 2016 with the Bruins and was coming off five 20-goal seasons in the previous six for the St. Louis Blues. But Backes’s scoring declined each season in Boston – he has five goals in 55 games this season – and now he’s decided to hang on by using his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame for fighting.
This decision – and the approval of Bruins’ management – works against everything NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his fellow management executives say they have been doing for years to rid the league of fighting.
By the time Bettman was named commissioner in 1993, the bench-clearing brawls that marked the NHL in the 1970s through the 1980s were scarce, although fights were still common. Each team had a couple of enforcers, who by this time were taking boxing and martial-arts lessons and bulking up, which made the fights a lot more dangerous. The fights became a sideshow with any perceived slights by either team usually resulting in a couple of the dancing bears squaring off in what was considered a staged fight.
One of Bettman’s early pronouncements was that he wanted to eliminate fighting. However, the commissioner soon realized too many players, coaches, managers, owners and fans emjoyed the fisticuffs and dropped the idea of an outright ban.
Instead, Bettman worked over the years to change the game itself so there was no room for the fighters. By 2010 or so, a series of rules and other changes introduced after the 2004-05 lockout made the game fast and skilled enough that all of the goons who could not actually play hockey were squeezed out.
But Backes and the Bruins seem to think it’s time for a trip down memory lane. It should also be noted they just happen to have the most powerful owner in the NHL in Jacobs, which just might cut down on any blowback from the league.
Backes acknowledged his concussion history this week but had something astonishing to add: “You look at the stats, and you’re not as prone to concussions actually fighting as you are from whiplash, side hits, shoulders to the face or elbows to the face.”
Apparently, Backes somehow missed all those tragic stories about NHL fighters such as Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Todd Ewen and Derek Boogaard. Some of them were linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), all of them had concussions during their playing days, others battled depression and/or substance abuse.
The maddening thing about this is Backes is not a one-dimensional, intellectually dim athlete with no other way to make a living. He was chosen for the 2005-06 ESPN Academic All-American First Team when he played at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He graduated with a degree in applied organizational studies.
Backes and his wife, Kelly, are activists for animal welfare. They established the Athletes For Animals organization in 2013 that is involved in animal rescue, pet adoptions and raising money for animal shelters.
A bright future awaits Backes and his young family when his hockey days are over. But the pull of being an NHL player is such that he is willing to risk all of that to keep his spot on the Bruins. Even worse, the people running the team are happy to see him do it.