The conversation around David Backes and his new, aggressive approach to his playing role got somewhat carried away in recent days.
By Thursday morning, less than 48 hours after his reinvigorated pugnacity was noted here following his fight Tuesday with Carolina’s Micheal Ferland, rumors all but had UFC representatives circling Causeway Street to secure Battleship Backes42 to a long-term deal inside the Octagon. Fire the depth charges!!!
So, a little perspective, along with what I think is appropriate concern for a guy who has said in the past that he needs most of his 10 digits to count the concussions he’s incurred over the length of his playing career.
Neither Backes nor Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Tuesday night that the veteran winger had recast himself as a brawler or goon. The fight with Ferland was his third in four games — appropriately characterized as a record or anomaly — for the former Blues captain who will turn 35 in May.
The uptick in his, shall we say, activity is self-evident. He has struggled mightily to put points on the board this season (55 games/15 points). He’s not happy about it. He’s proud. Above all, he wants to keep a spot in the lineup, which was among the key points he made following his tussle with Ferland.
“It’s a calculated decision,” he told me, when I asked him if he worries about his concussion history and how that meets with dropping the gloves. “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 and I’m OK with it. Sticking up for each other is a staple of what we do here.”
Cassidy, when I asked if he worried about Backes in fights, said, “Uh . . . I do . . . I worry about . . . listen, they’re human beings first, right?”
Backes and Cassidy met on the club’s recent long western swing and the two had a discussion about his fit in the lineup. Over a six-game stretch in early February, Cassidy chose (key word here: chose ) not to dress Backes for three games (Rangers, Avalanche, Kings), hardly the role that Backes or the Bruins envisioned when he signed his five-year, $30 million free agent deal in the summer of 2016. His scratch in Philly Jan. 16 was the first DND of his career.
Out of that meeting on the road, it was clear to both that a more active, physical level of engagement could lead to fewer DNDs. And voila, once back in Boston, the 6-foot-3-inch, 215-pound Backes squared off in games vs. San Jose, Tampa Bay, and then the Hurricanes.
No mystery here, folks. While he is not chasing prey around the cage, he is doing whatever he can to “play a role” and that role isn’t rubbing out the spots from silverware and wine glasses. He may not be looking for fights, but he is actively aware of points of engagement, opportunities to tip over the china cabinets and smash plates.
As your faithful puck chronicler, a part of me finds that admirable. He tried ardently over the summer, through weight loss and targeted training, to pick up his foot speed, to remain relevant in the new-age game of laser hockey. His effort was earnest, his leaner physique obvious. But whatever speed he gained, if any, was not discernible. In part due to injury — yet another concussion suffered Oct. 18 in Edmonton — he put up but a lone assist through the club’s first 22 games.
The best of Backes, the now-almost-35 version, is what we saw in Thursday’s win over the Panthers. He was repeatedly present around the net. He picked up an assist on the David Krejci goal that cut the Panthers’ lead to 2-1. He was Sasquatch-like in setting the net-front screen when Matt Grzelcyk stepped into the one-timer and tied it, 3-3, in the final minute.
“I think maybe the physicality from recent games has brought out the truculence in his game,” Cassidy said when I asked if that’s what he wanted out of Backes. “He’s getting to the net and winning pucks and maybe it’s snowballing a bit for him.”
Great. Perfect. Even with his challenged speed, Backes has the brains and guile to find his way on to the scoresheet.
But here is the worry, particularly for a guy we saw exit the playoffs last season when getting delivered full steam to the concussion woodpile by Tampa Bay’s J.T Miller: Concussions are brain injuries. Eventually, they catch up. In the worst cases, they catch up and turn into voracious, unremitting wood chippers of the mind, body, and soul.
Rick Nash figured it out over the summer, after incurring his last knock in a Boston uniform, and called it quits. Not everyone is afforded, or can afford, that choice. Backes is among the fortunate to have money, and right now time and health, on his side.
So, I asked Backes postgame on Tuesday if he worried about the potential consequences of fighting. He is nothing if not a sincere, smart, reasoned guy. Does he worry about himself?
“My wife probably does, but I think that can’t be a thought in your head when you are out playing in the NHL,” he said. “She might worry about me driving over 65 miles an hour on the Pike, and potential car accidents or whatever else that could come. But I think the game . . . you look at the stats and you’re not as prone to concussions actually from fighting as you are from whiplash and side hits or shoulders to the face.”
Backes squares that as his “calculated decision.” However, assuming he’s right about fighting being the lesser of the game’s evils, it doesn’t acknowledge that a guy with zero, 10 or 20 lifetime concussions is but one punch to the jaw away from his first, 11th or 21st brain injury. Backes is somewhere in the middle of that scale.
In a game chock full of dangers, as he duly noted, I think Backes is only kidding himself with his calculation. In a game that has fashioned speed and pulverizing hits into crack cocaine for both player and spectator, a 34-year-old guy with a long concussion rap sheet has his speedometer pegged at 65 miles an hour and car aimed at the Jersey barrier. Right now, this is a good guy with a bad punch and a worse ending just waiting to happen.
Bucyk remembers Lindsay as leader
In his four years as the Bruins’ captain, 1973-77, John Bucyk led by inclusivity. Anyone who wore the Spoked-B, whether rookie, role player or superstar, was made to feel everyone had an equal share in the whole.
That spirit, Bucyk recalled the other day, came from the two seasons he spent on the Red Wings roster with Ted Lindsay among the most powerful voices in the Winged Wheel lineup. The legendary Lindsay died this past week at the age of 93.
“He was the type of player who would protect all the young rookies,” recalled Bucyk, who played in Detroit for two seasons, 1955-57, prior to being dealt to the Bruins. “Oh, he was just unbelievable. He taught me a lot. I’d watch him, because we were both left wingers, but I wasn’t a hacker like he was — he was pretty tough; not afraid to swing the stick or go after you. But I had a lot of respect for him. A terrific person. And I’ll tell you, I was thrilled to be a part of the team when he played.”
Lindsay, best known for his exploits as part of the famed Red Wing “Production Line” with Sid Abel and Gordie Howe, left a distinct thumbprint on the NHL far beyond his playing résumé, including:
■ In tandem with Canadiens great Doug Harvey and others, founded the NHL Players’ Association in 1957. The initial agreement guaranteed a minimum wage of $7,000 (roughly 1 percent of today’s minimum), along with pension guarantees. Both players paid the price for their vision and unwavering support of organized labor, with Lindsay dealt immediately to Chicago and Harvey eventually shipped to the Rangers.
■ Started the tradition of hoisting the Stanley Cup and parading it around the arena for everyone to see on the night of the clinching game.
■ Boycotted his own induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, irked over the fact that women and family members were not invited to attend the ceremony. Previously a “men’s only” event, the Hall changed its practices the following year.
Only 5 feet 8 inches and 165 pounds, the fearless “Terrible Ted” was a ferocious checker and scorer, leading the league in 1949-50 with 78 points. He entered the league at age 19 in 1944, the back end of the World War II years, and became a fixture in a heralded lineup that won the Cup four times (1950, ’52, ’54 and ’55).
“He was strong, very strong,” recalled Bucyk. “And in great condition. He worked and worked on his conditioning. But I had the most respect for him because he always looked after the younger players, the kids that came up. That was my model. He’d been a captain and did that, respected, so I tried to do the same thing here — look after the newcomers and make sure they feel a part of the team.”
Lindsay reached the 25-goal plateau in eight seasons and finished his career with 851 points in 1,068 games. He officially retired in 1965 after ending a four-year retirement to make a one-year reunion tour with the Red Wings. But he was essentially finished in the spring of 1960 after three seasons as a placed refugee in Chicago. The spring of 1960 was also the time the great Maurice “Rocket” Richard last suited up for the Canadiens.
“He started the union, and that’s what got him in trouble in Detroit,” recalled Bucyk. “He took the blame for it and got traded just after it. I was there two years with him. I don’t say I played. I didn’t get much ice time. I only scored 11 goals in two years, but I learned a lot there with the Wings, watching Gordie and Teddy.”
Bucyk was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, surrounded by friends and family.
GMs in favor of new helmet rule
NHL general managers held their annual March confab/hugfest in Boca Raton, Fla., this past week and voted in favor of a rule change for next season that would mandate a player to make his way immediately to his bench if he were to lose his helmet during play.
If he refuses to get off the ice, the player would be tagged with a two-minute minor — similar to the standard governing playing with a broken stick.
The rule change, which must be rubber-stamped by the league’s competition committee and the Board of Governors, makes sense from a safety aspect. Without the bucket attached, players are more vulnerable to getting nicked with sticks, pucks, and elbows and run a greater risk of suffering a head injury.
However, one important point of caution, one that was on clear display Tuesday night at the Garden. With the Hurricanes pressing in the offensive zone, an under-pressure Zdeno Chara reached back and peeled off the helmet of a forechecking Nino Niederreiter. Under current rules, Niederreiter stayed with the play along the rear wall and later regained ownership of the helmet.
Next season, if the new rule is implemented, a defenseman in identical circumstances would know one way to relieve pressure would be to flip the forward’s lid. Next season, the attacker would be forced to leave, or suffer the consequences of a minor penalty. Either way, at a minimum, the offensive pressure was reduced and likely negated.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Before checking off on flipped lids, the Lords of the Boards might have to put there heads together on this one.
Gabrielle: Better safe than sorry
Bruins forward prospect Jesse Gabrielle, the 105th pick in the 2015 draft, says he has shut it down for the season after suffering three concussions dating to his September training camp with AHL Providence. The other two came in the ECHL, one with Atlanta and the final one with Wichita, all of them over a span of 3½ months.
He told the Hartley Can Scan, a podcast highlighting the Prince George Cougars, his former junior team, that he might have three other concussions during his junior days. “Be safe about it,” he said during the show. “Don’t risk your brain. You only have one.”
Gabrielle showed some promising pop during his junior career, potting 75 goals in his two years with Prince George. The Bruins assigned him directly to AHL Providence for this year, then quickly dropped him to the “E.” He has a year remaining on his entry-level deal.
The Bruins netted two first-round picks (Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton) and a second (Jared Knight) from Toronto in 2009 when they felt Phil Kessel’s “second” contract demands were too high. He then immediately signed a five-year extension with the Maple Leafs that paid him $27 million. Currently, three high-end July 1 RFA forwards remain unsigned as their entry-level deals expire: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay), and Mitch Marner (Toronto). All three are likely come to terms with their current clubs. But if the Bruins could land one of them for two firsts and a second, who’s your pick? The choice here would be Marner, even at a cost of three first-rounders. But then comes the issue of signing him. Now on target to finish as the Leafs’ top scorer for a second straight season, Marner likely will command upward of $10 million a season, if not more . . . Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, in Boston with the Panthers broadcast team this past week, still winces at the memory of a Jocelyn Guevremont shot that nailed him just above the right ear one night when his Islanders visited Vancouver. “Cracked my helmet,” said Potvin, 65, proud of his old bucket, which was designed to spread the impact of the blow across the top of the helmet. “I remember the doc looking at it, and saying, ‘You know that coulda killed you.’ No doubt he was right. Even with a different helmet I might have been dead.” . . . Massachusetts has yet to legalize gambling on professional sports. But one sure sign it’s coming, ultimately to the Garden, Fenway, and Gillette: the riches collected in New Jersey in the month of January. On sports bets of $385 million, New Jersey bookmakers pocketed $18.8 million, the latter figure surpassing the $14.6 million Vegas bookmakers skimmed off of $497 million in wagers. Per gambling.com, that’s the first time anyone in North America out-Vegased Vegas on sports bets. When it comes to fruition here, I hope they take bets on whether there’s a stop in play during the first minute of Bruins games. Lead-pipe cinch.