David Backes waited his entire career to play for the Stanley Cup, and now he’s going to have to do it against some of his best friends in hockey.
The former St. Louis captain will face his old team with the NHL title on the line, starting Monday night when the Blues and Bruins open the final in Boston. It’s not the ideal situation for the 35-year-old Backes, but after waiting 13 seasons to get to this point, he’ll take it.
“It’s a binary decision now. It’s us or them. One of us is going to win the Cup,” he said this week after the Blues beat San Jose in the West final.
“That’s the position you’d want to be in at the beginning of the year,” Backes said. “I wish those guys well up until this point, but now it’s all about us and winning this thing. All our thoughts and all our efforts are in this room.”
Backes was an all-star in 2011 and a leader on the Blues who finished in the top seven of the Selke Award voting for five straight seasons before signing a five-year, $30 million contract with Boston in 2016. St. Louis feared Backes would be a financial burden by the end of the deal.
Backes has indeed slowed, and coach Bruce Cassidy scratched him for three games against Toronto in the first round and twice more against Columbus.
But since he returned to the lineup, the Bruins have won seven in a row to reach the final for the third time since 2011.
Cassidy said Backes’ leadership and experience were factors in getting back in the lineup. And now that the team has advanced, winning a Cup for Backes has become a motivational cause in the locker room.
“He’s a very popular guy on the team,” Cassidy said. “So the guys that won one want to win again, obviously, but there’s a little extra pull for sure for a guy like David. He’s been a captain in this league, he came to the Bruins with the feeling he’ll have an opportunity to win a Cup, and here we are.”
And the Blues will be trying just as hard to prevent it.
“I don’t think anybody thinks about personalities,” St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko said. “Yeah, we spent a lot of time together, but on the ice there is no friends. We are not friends. It’s just going to be a hard final.”
Blues defenseman and team captain Alex Pietrangelo said he learned a lot from Backes during their six-plus seasons together. Their families have also become close.
But he has played against Backes in the Olympics and the NHL regular season, so it’s not unfamiliar territory.
“I don’t want to dwell on this too much. We’ve got a bigger thing to deal with,” he said. “I sent him a text yesterday to say, ‘Thanks, and we’ll be friends again in two weeks.’ And I never got a message back. I guess they already started.”
Backes said Pietrangelo is one of his best friends. Or at least he will be again when this is all over.
“I told him I’m going to love him now, I’m going to love him afterward, but I’m going to hate him for the next three weeks. That’s a mutual decision,” Backes said. “We’ll patch up whatever we need to patch up afterward, but it’s all about what’s in this room, what our goal is and what we need to do to win these games.”
For Backes, part of that job is making sure that the younger Bruins don’t waste their chance. A handful of players got their name on the Stanley Cup in 2011 — including Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand — and a couple more were around when the team returned to the final two years later.
But for the rest, Backes is a living reminder that the opportunity doesn’t necessarily come around too often.
“We’re blessed to be in this position, and each and every guy should take this as potentially maybe their only time,” he said. “I’m trying to remind those young guys, ‘I appreciate you thinking about me, but think of yourself as well, and think of the guy to your left and right.’
“Because you could be 21 and think the finals are a common thing every other year, in your second year,” he said. “But this is a rarity and we need to take the opportunity and make the most of it.”