Let’s see, there’s Maverick, a handsome rottweiler, and there’s Rosie, a mix of pit bull and Labrador retriever, and then the slightly more circumspect and way cooler — just ask them — pair of orange tabbies, Sonny and Paulie.
Toss in a couple of adults, a pair of preschoolers, and well, Christmas time for the Backes family can be, you know, two cute for words.
“It can make for a long car ride,” mused Bruins forward David Backes, understandably relieved that his band of eight spent the NHL holiday break here in the Hub and not hustling back home to Blaine, Minnesota. “We’re gonna do ‘Frozen Two’ and ‘Disney on Ice’ and then it’s pajamas for the rest of the time.”
And . . . maybe a bit of kibble and some belly rubs here and there.
Maverick, Rosie, Sonny and Paulie don’t have a say in how the remote clicker’s deployed, but they are fully adopted Backes family members, rescue pets emblematic of the “Athletes For Animals” charity organization that David and wife Kelly founded back when the NHL was on its latest protracted quiet period — also known as the 2012-’13 labor lockout.
Both from Blaine, outside Minneapolis, David and Kelly dreamed for years about starting their own organization to help animals. Frozen out of the arena, they got to work in the kennel game.
As a boy, David had a black rescue poodle, Jazz, while Kelly’s childhood backyard was full of ducks and bunnies, fitting for a kid with a veterinary technician as a mom and a backyard that bumped up to forest land.
“She had the full Dr. Doolittle at her house,” said Backes. “So all of this was more in her blood than mine, but once you are able to connect with the animals, you know, give them a voice because they don’t have one, it becomes impactful work . . . and you take more than you give, I think.”
Soon after getting their charity off the ground, Kelly noted the special bond that pets and people share. Just one example: how excited a dog typically gets when the two-legged residents in charge (or so they think) come walking through the door.
“The joy and happiness and life [pets] bring into your home . . . ” said Kelly, “. . . it’s just amazing.”
To date, Athletes For Animals has generated more than $600,000 in donations. According to David, that has translated to helping more than 6,000 animals, be it for health care or helping rescues find forever homes.
This past August, Athletes For Animals held its second annual wine tasting extravaganza, this one at Leopold’s Mississippi Gardens in Minneapolis. Other NHLers in attendance included Zach Parise and Jason Zucker from the Wild, Derek Stepan from the Coyotes, Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh, and fellow Bruin Karson Kuhlman, the latter of of whom is nearing a return to game action after being sidelined the last two months with a fractured tibia.
David and Kelly both attended Mankato State in Minnesota, and it was there, long before the lockout, that they began to formulate their charity idea. As college students, it was impractical for either of them to own pets.
“That was 2004 or ’05, just walking animals at college,” he recalled. “Because getting an animal while you are renting a place as a student is, uh, not a very responsible decision.”
David and Kelly just recently wrapped up the organization’s year-end appeal and its fall grant cycle, designating funding directly for animal health care and adoption. The two of them process all the grant applications themselves, noted David, and also donate the time and whatever added funds are needed for administrative costs. Anyone who donates, he said, can do so with the peace of mind that every penny goes directly to animal care.
The holiday season often leads to a boost in giving.
“I don’t know if it’s that people recognize it on their taxes,” he said, “or it’s just the spirit of Christmas, helping and giving, seeing animals in need and wanting to help them. We do all the back work. We make sure [donations] go to credible organizations that do awesome work in their communities.”
The next regular-season game for Backes, 35, will be the 943rd of his career, and he’s added 82 more playoff games. He has a touch of gray these days around both ears, and is now an old dog playing on wisdom, in a game full of barking puppies, their legs spring-loaded, energetic tails snapping like little bullwhips.
The Bruins return to work Friday night in Buffalo and it remains to be seen if Backes is back on the job at right wing. For now, the old dog awaits his chance, in a game where wisdom has a way of paying off.