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New Bruin David Backes has a history of solving problems

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David Backes played 10 seasons with the Blues, and had been their captain since 2011.AP/Associated Press

Backes was homeless.

In early July, Backes was living in a cage at Five Acres Animal Shelter in St. Charles, Mo.

Backes has since moved on. The 5-month-old pit bull terrier/boxer was adopted by a St. Charles resident and renamed Princess Peach. The white-and-brown puppy is friends with Henry the rabbit and is intrigued by her owner's chickens.

Backes's namesake has moved on, too.

David Backes, property of the St. Louis Blues since June 21, 2003, closed a 13-year segment of his life on July 1. That day, by signing a five-year, $30 million contract with the Bruins, Backes became the organization's most expensive free agent acquisition since Zdeno Chara agreed to a five-year, $37.5 million deal on July 1, 2006.


While Backes-turned-Peach has a home just outside St. Louis and Backes-turned-Bruin is searching for housing just outside Boston, the two have a connection despite never meeting. Peach might owe her life to what could be considered her benefactor.

In 2007, when David and wife Kelly visited Five Acres to volunteer, the canine building was crammed. Cats lived in a decaying house. Only 10 animals were adopted per month. Five Acres was fighting to stay open.

Nine years later, on May 14, Five Acres welcomed Backes the dog and her seven siblings (Allen, Brouwer, Elliott, Ott, Shattenkirk, Steen, and Tarasenko) from another shelter. The eight-puppy litter played in the outside run behind the canine-only house.

Backes took naps at 11 a.m. to soothing music. She met with her adopter in one of three meet-and-greet rooms, perhaps even in the one sponsored by the Backeses. In July, the puppy became one of 70 animals, on average, that Five Acres places in homes per month.

"A lot of the right people were in the right place at the right time," said Kim Brown, Five Acres's former executive director. "David and Kelly were a huge part of that turnaround. It did go from a place that needed some repairs and updates to a place that's expanded into a beautiful facility."


Five Acres executive director Becky Krueger holds Backes, a pit bull terrier/boxer.

Backes identified something that needed to be fixed. It's how he approaches life.

"I was an electrical engineering student," said Backes, who was raised in Blaine, Minn., and attended Minnesota State. "By nature, I'm the problem-solving type."

Playoff breakthrough

In 2015-16, the Blues recorded 107 points, second-most in the Western Conference, to set up a first-round showdown against Chicago. Everyone in the organization accepted that pink slips were coming if hockey in St. Louis did not stretch into May.

"You say, 'Well, the coach is probably gone. A lot of the prominent players are probably gone. Even the core is probably all gone,' " Backes said. "You just start over because it hasn't worked for four years."

One-and-done had become part of their identity, fused with the Blues like the Arch with St. Louis. From 2013-15, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minnesota acknowledged the "Kick Me" sign on the Blues' backs and punted them from the playoffs in the first round.

In 2015, after losing to the Wild, Backes and his wife stayed in St. Louis instead of returning to Minnesota, partly because they were expecting Stella, their first child, in June. But as captain, Backes had to bring the bleach into the room to initiate disinfection. Backes participated in prickly postmortems with general manager Doug Armstrong, coach Ken Hitchcock, teammates, and even trainers.


"Those were tough conversations," Backes said. "But what came out of it, as captain, we needed to have more tough conversations as a group to really get everyone on the same page and get our ideals in line on how we were going to have success."

When the players returned for training camp, those talks began. They weren't fun. To oversee the process, the captain required discipline, a word not always compatible with Backes's bullish approach.

In 2006-07, Backes entered the NHL as a predatory right wing, intent on hunting players more than pucks. In 2008-09, he scored a career-high 31 goals. But the 26-year-old also spent 165 minutes in the box because of his hot head and sharp elbows.

"He was unpolished, which, quite frankly, was a good thing," Hitchcock said. "He was a reckless player that scared the hell out of people."

Last year, Hitchcock required composure, not combustion. In 2015-16, Backes (21-24—45) recorded a career-low 1.35 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, perhaps partly because Hitchcock tapped him for thankless grunt work unrelated to scoring: killing five-on-three power plays, taking late-game draws, and bashing heads with No. 1 centers.

Backes and his fellow veterans also had to lead the way for Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Alex Pietrangelo, the next wave of alpha dogs, as well as for rookies Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko.

"As time wore on and he knew what we were thinking, we would say less and less," Hitchcock said. "It was being said before we got in the room. That's the comfort level for me. He was a good player on the details side of things. But the bigger part was what needed to get said just flat got said."


St. Louis beat Chicago in seven games. The Stars were next to fall.

The Blues ran out of gas in the Western Conference finals against San Jose. But for once, after playing their final game of the season, they did not have to hang their heads.

"The time I've been here with David, we've had five really good regular seasons and four really disappointing playoffs," said Armstrong. "Last year's playoffs, I certainly wouldn't call them disappointing. They weren't the ultimate goal. But they were a move in the right direction."

Bruins come calling

Backes cried after the season-ending loss on May 25, not just because of the premature end. He had possibly played his 776th and final game for the Blues. In 37 days, he would become unrestricted.

Backes served the Blues well. But at 32 years old, his high mileage did not fit the profile of a sound long-term investment.

"Really, the sticking point on both sides was term, right from last year," Armstrong said. "He started at six years. We started at three. It was a wide berth there. We upped it to four. He came down to five. There was no 4½ available."

Armstrong owned assets that made Backes expendable. Tarasenko and Schwartz are 24. Fabbri is 20. The Bruins' go-to players are older. Their top prospects won't be NHL-ready for several more years. The Bruins had a greater need for Backes to complement Chara (39), Patrice Bergeron (31), and David Krejci (30) as bridges to the next generation.


On June 25, when the interview period opened, the Bruins called Backes and told him they were keenly interested. Five days later, Backes was in St. Louis for Pietrangelo's rehearsal dinner. A final round of talks between Armstrong and agent Wade Arnott hadn't gained traction.

"You've spent 13 years with the organization, 10 with the team," Backes said. "You say, 'I've been the captain for five years and we just got to the Western Conference final. This should be working out.' But it's not working out because of the business side of things.

"There's some real raw emotion that comes out, knowing the next day is July 1, and with the involved talks I had with a few teams, it's likely they're going to come at me aggressively at noon Eastern and I won't be wearing a Blue Note next year."

Leaving St. Louis was difficult for David Backes.AP/Associated Press

On July 1, the last-gasp call Backes hoped to receive from Armstrong never came. He went for a head-clearing run. At 11 a.m. Central time, the Bruins called. Thirty minutes later, the sides agreed. The next day, Backes attended Pietrangelo's wedding as a friend, not a teammate.

"I think both St. Louis and I wanted me to finish my career there," Backes said. "But how that looks on paper is a different theory on either side."

It was Backes's final swing at a significant payday. He appreciated the five-year security the Bruins offered. But saying goodbye to St. Louis was not easy. Roots that spread wide and burrow deep do not feel good to rip up.

"It's sad," said Becky Krueger, executive director of Five Acres. "Boston is getting a great hockey player, an awesome member of the hockey team. But they're also getting a very compassionate man — someone who is caring, a happy person, somebody you enjoy being around. I think that is what we will miss the most."

Man with a purpose

In 2007, when David and Kelly Backes first visited Five Acres, only 10 animals were being adopted per month. The shelter now averages 70 adoptions monthly.

In 2007, after his recall from the AHL, David and Kelly made animal welfare their cause.

"You see some of your teammates that go to the rink, go home, take a nap, play PlayStation, watch a movie, go out to dinner, go to bed. Repeat, repeat, repeat," Backes said.

"I just think that God's given us this great platform to use. It needs to be used to help others and to make some sort of social change. For us, it's animals."

The Backeses scooped poop upon their 2007 arrival at Five Acres. They changed kitty litter. The couple realized Backes's high profile could help him serve Five Acres more efficiently by increasing awareness of the shelter.

Backes attended fund-raisers. He wrote checks. He and Kelly served on the shelter's board of directors. Backes helped to initiate Barkin' for the Blues, an annual event in which the shelter hosts a booth at Scottrade Center during games to appeal for adoptions, increase awareness, and raise funds.

By participating in the capital campaign, the Backeses helped Five Acres update the canine building. A donating plaque reading "Backes Family" hangs on a post in Five Acres's feline building, which opened in June. It replaced the previous 100-year-old cat facility, razed in August. The second floor of the $600,000 building is home to cats with feline immunodeficiency virus.

Earlier in August, as they moved some final things from their home in Clayton, a St. Louis suburb, the Backeses hosted a farewell party. Three-quarters of their guests were connections from their work with animals.

Backes has since sold his house and left St. Louis for good. He leaves a city familiar with turnover. TWA was sold to American. Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas. Nestlé acquired Ralston Purina. Anheuser-Busch was sold to InBev.

On Jan. 4, 2016, in their application for relocation, the NFL's Rams cited a study noting that St. Louis had the lowest population growth rate of any major US city from 2008-14. Eight days later, the NFL approved the Rams' transfer to Los Angeles.

Corporate and civilian flight has trickled down to Ice Zone, the Blues' practice facility located in the St. Louis Outlet Mall in Hazelwood. Shuttered storefronts, within a stroll from Ice Zone, include the Children's Place, Glamour Nails, Marble Slab Creamery, Lorenzo Menswear, and Famous Fresh Studios. Sbarro, Panda Express, and Asian World are the food court's only open eateries. Most of the mall's 1.1 million-square-foot plot is vacant.

In July, amid the lonely mall's inactivity, young bodies charged around Ice Zone during the team's annual development camp. Hitchcock and the other Blues bosses watched the next generation of hopefuls, most of whom he will never coach. Hitchcock is next to leave after committing to one final season behind the bench.

"Players come and go," Hitchcock said. "But your captain doesn't come and go."

The dream persists

Backes helped to stabilize a shelter. He launched Athletes for Animals, an organization that applies its users' high profiles to promote pet welfare. On the ice, Backes played a critical role in constructing an infrastructure that is now in the hands of ex-teammates.

"In 10 years, we turned a middling team that was really struggling into a contender," Backes said. "I really feel good about the culture that was built in my time in St. Louis.

"It wasn't just me. I can't take all that credit. But with a group of guys, we were able to have concrete items to live by, ways we were going to do business in St. Louis, and how we were going to go about our work every day. I feel great about how we were able to do that."

Backes had a dream. He wanted to become the Blues' first player to lift the Stanley Cup over his head. During his summer party, he would place newborn Stella in it.

Part of his dream will never come true. Another part remains alive. Backes understands the Cup is precious because of the problems that are solved prior to its capture. It's why, as a Bruin now, he continues to dream about how it would feel to wrap his arms around something as hard to grab as a fistful of smoke.

In Backes's mind, it feels really good.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.