Professional sports is such an odd thing because it mirrors life in certain ways. When players leave the St. Louis Blues, or any team for that matter, the breakup is often messy and splits up the family.
That’s exactly what happened when David Backes left the Blues after the 2015-16 season. While Backes did what he needed to do and the Blues did the same, the fans got divided the way you see children pick a side in films about divorce.
Some fans believed that Backes had earned the money he wanted based on past performances and leadership. Others, including myself, knew that he was no longer worth the money he asked for and being a voice in the locker room was not valuable enough.
Regardless of what side you fell on, if we are honest, it was still tough to see him go. Those that felt the team made the right decision hid behind our reasons, but we still felt for him as a person.
For me, I had grown tired of seeing him look all teary-eyed during postgame media scrums. Too often he knew exactly what the team’s problem was, but it never changed. In our anger, we asked what kind of captain cannot fix the things he easily identifies?
The reality is that it is hard to lead. Whether it’s a coach or a captain, you can only shoulder so much before the blame rests on those that are not pulling their weight instead of blaming those that could not drag them along.
Looking back, that’s where Backes fell. He knew what the team’s problems were most nights, but one man can only do so much to get the rest to step in line. It was basically a hockey version of you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot force him to drink.
From a performance standpoint, Backes still had value to the Blues, but not for the money he wanted. Unfortunately, fans who thought that way were proven right as Backes’ production took a decline each year after he left St. Louis and then fell off a cliff.
It was ironic that Backes finally got to the Stanley Cup Final in the year the Blues would be his opponent. The city’s good fortune would be more heartbreak for the Blues former captain as he was a scratch late in the series and watched many of his former friends lift the Cup while he was in the press box.
Though that moment ended in heartache and Backes’ final moments in the NHL were filled with tears, short of winning the Cup, he went out the way he wanted and the way most Blues fans wanted. The majority of Blues fans, regardless of whether we were fine with his initial exit or not, wanted him to retire with the Blues and he got to.
Backes signed a one-day contract and retired a member of the St. Louis Blues. He also showed why he was made captain of the team and why so many fans were emotionally connected to him by writing a heartfelt letter to sign off his professional hockey career.
While Backes thanked former teammates that helped his career, such as DJ King and Keith Tkachuk, and also thanked Boston and Anaheim for letting his career continue, what was striking was the connection he felt with St. Louis. Though we’ve almost come to expect standing ovations for former sports heroes, Backes talked of his astonishment for a standing ovation at a baseball game after he had just signed with the Boston Bruins.
"I thought – are you kidding me?!! I had just left in free agency and I get a standing O? I had chills, and that was the moment that solidified to me the attachment that I had to St. Louis and that St. Louis had to me. The connections to the community and people who are so great around town and had supported me and my family through the years was almost too much to take at that time. – David Backes, retirement letter"
What was so amazing about Backes’ journey was how it intertwined with St. Louis and also got bookended with the Blues too.
Obviously, his NHL career began with the Blues since they were the team that drafted him. It was fate that his one, best chance to win a Cup he would face the Blues. Then, whether by chance or design, his final NHL game came in St. Louis when the Anaheim Ducks played the Blues.
Backes had been a scratch most of that season, so maybe it was a symbolic gesture to give him that moment. It does not matter. We can talk all we want about contracts and overpaid players or greedy owners. When you strip it all away, these are real people with real emotions and Backes definitely had his on his sleeve that night.
It would have been nice to see the big guy win the chalice before he was done. Though we all stung at the breakups, it was still good to see guys like TJ Oshie win one with Washington and David Perron got his in St. Louis, after narrowly missing out in Vegas. Though they filled our nights with lots of frustration, that was a fun core group to watch and one of the longest lasting groups to come in and stay together in recent memory.
Now, we can all just fondly remember Backes’ efforts for the Note and remember his moments as a top-notch human being. Instead of fretting over how he left, I’ll remember the good things instead.
The goal he scored against Chicago in that testy, seven-game series in 2016 and how he helped lead that team to the 2016 Western Conference Final. I’ll also remember his heartfelt speech during an All-Star breakfast in St. Louis during All-Star weekend, where he described how his faith helped him through the dark times he had felt throughout his career, especially toward the end. Of course, it’s hard to ignore all the charitable works he and his family did, such as his work with animals, specifically dogs.
Ultimately, this ended just as it should have. Backes came in with the Blues and goes out with them as well. If only more stories had such an ending.