David Backes has a second chance at what he always envisioned as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As much as Backes, the captain of the St. Louis Blues, is preparing for three more games at Scottrade Center before the NHL's Olympic break, he's also thinking about boarding his flight out of Newark, N.J., to Sochi, Russia on Sunday. After winning the silver medal as the United States' tough-guy center in 2010, Backes is now part of the leadership core for the team that will wear the red, white and blue in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
He won't have a letter on his sweater (those belong to captain Zach Parise and alternates Ryan Suter and Dustin Brown), but if the Americans make a run at gold later this month Backes will most certainly be a big part of it.
In anticipation of heading off to his second Olympics, Backes spoke to NHL.com by phone on Monday to talk about his expectations for Sochi, his game and style on the big international ice, the life lessons he took away from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, America's center depth, and, yes, a bit on the Blues. We even tossed in a bonus question.
Q: You're nine days from playing your first game in Sochi. Can you compare right now your expectations for these Olympics, for team success, for personal success, for what you expect the experience to be to what you had four years ago when you were getting ready to go to Vancouver?
A: "In Vancouver, I think we were a group of younger players that didn't have really external expectations. Internally we wanted to succeed, but it was really unknown. And this year coming in, with our success in Vancouver, I think we've got more internal expectations and we've got a group of guys that has been together before, and we've proven to ourselves and a lot to other people on our capabilities and ability to perform at the Olympic level.
"Vancouver was also comfortable, a city we travel to regularly on our NHL schedule, somewhere on an afternoon I can send my parents to a restaurant I've been to multiple times before and meet them there after practice. With Sochi, there's a lot of unknown. It's a different culture, a different part of the world, different languages being spoken. You've got a little more of a spotlight on some potential terror threats. I guess the overall expectation is that the games will go off without a hitch and the authorities are doing everything they can to make sure it's safe and a great games, but you can't control everything. In the end we're there to play a sport, represent our country and we plan to do that."
Q: How does your game translate on the big ice and do you think it matters that you haven't played on the big ice since the IIHF World Championship in 2009?
A: "I'll pull off some prior experiences. You talk about 2009, but in 2007 I was in Moscow in the World Championships on the big ice. In college (Minnesota State) my team played on an Olympic sheet. At home during the summers you get a few games on an Olympic sheet. For me it's more of a mental thing than a physical thing. If you can think the game and it's not a robotic thing where you're like, 'I've seen this before, go chase this guy down,' and all of a sudden you're like, 'Whoa there is an extra 15 feet of width and I'm nowhere near where I should be,' obviously some guys will have a little more leeway because of their skating ability and ability to recover, but for me it's a mental part of the game. You have to think it and anticipate it to evolve on the bigger sheet. The smarter players will have a lot of success in my opinion, unless they're already over in Europe or play on it frequently enough to where they are comfortable on it to begin with.
"It's about the mental side and not chasing and being all over the place, looking to be a physical player every shift. But there are still times when you're fighting for a puck in the corner when size and strength and ability to come out of there with the puck is a huge asset. Not losing sight of that, being able to skate with a lot of the players, obviously there are some guys I've got no chance of keeping up with, but you still have to play the game and use the things that have made you successful up until this point."
Q: Back to Vancouver, what did you learn about yourself as a person and a player there, and did that experience change you in any way, make you more confident, outgoing, tougher, any of those things?
A: "Any of those things? I'd say all those things. You play on that level, that stage of hockey, represent your country on that big of a stage, it's humbling and it's an honor. I don't think in the moment there's a lot of lessons snapped into you, but in retrospect and sitting back and soaking it all up, you go, 'That was an experience that was once in a lifetime.' I'm getting a second chance at it, but I played a gold-medal game that 35 million people watched around the world and was able to maybe inspire some little kid to try hockey for the first time, or some non-traditional hockey market was seeing hockey and saying, 'That's something we need to get into our area.'
"On top of that, connecting with a few of the Wounded Warriors like we did in 2010 is inspiration that just put things into perspective. Yes, I think some days I have bad days at the rink or I don't have a good game, but in reality it's a loss on the score sheet and tomorrow I get to wake up, walk my dogs, kiss my wife, and have another day at the rink. Those men and women that fight for our country, go overseas on foreign land, those guys are playing for keeps and their lives are on the line.
"Through all that you really grow as a person. You meet people from different countries and even when there are language barriers, there is a respect among hockey players for sure, but generally among the athletes at that level. You look at a bobsledder from Germany and you know what work I had to do to get to the elite level to get to the level I'm at, and how much time and effort they put in, and it's once every four years they get to compete on that level."
Q: Ask any pundit or media person like myself and they'll tell you that center depth is a concern for the United States, that it appears to be stronger on the wing than it is down the middle. I'll assume that you disagree, so can you tell me what you like about the depth the U.S. has down the middle and the strengths it has there?
A: "Well, if you look at the roster, there are some pretty darn good wings, so if that's the concern I'll still take it as a compliment. I've played against each of those guys, and if it's Ryan Kesler, myself, Paul Stastny, Derek Stepan or Joe Pavelski, the full roster of guys are guys that are more than capable on any night of controlling a hockey game. Are they huge names that are plastered on billboards across the nation? No, but there are very few guys that are, and they may be centrally located on one team in this tournament, but there are only so many guys who can play center and some of those guys are going to have to play an unnatural position and go to the wing. For me it's another one of those underdog situations where if I'm the weak link on the team then I'm feeling that we've got a pretty good team. I've heard the criticism before, but I'll take it."
Q: Can't let you go without asking you a Blues-related question, so here goes: You have three home games left before the Olympic break, you're neck and neck with Chicago in the Central Division, you've got games in hand and more regulation/overtime wins, but you come back from the Olympics to play six of seven on the road. Even though your Stanley Cup Playoff standing looks good, do you look at these three games as being crucial because of what you have upcoming in March?
A: "In full disclosure and truth, to look past these three games and worry that six of seven are on the road when we come back -- I didn't know that until you told me -- I think would be a step in the wrong direction for us. Maybe the coaching staff has enough time to sit there and analyze the schedule that much, but as players we have to concentrate on the Ottawa Senators (Tuesday) and when that game is over focus on the Boston Bruins. If we look further than our next opponent or our next task at hand I think we're setting ourselves up for failure or to slide into a losing streak, where we're not doing all the little things we need to do because our focus has gotten too wide and we're expanding our worries, our time and energy on things we can't control. We can control what we do today, what's at hand, and after that focus on the next thing. Yeah, we want to win these three games and go into the break looking good. After the break, I'm going to spend 16 days in Sochi and go on the road for that long, I'm going to long for a night in my own bed, but those are things we have to take in stride and make sure we're not getting distracted from what we do that makes us successful."
Q: To jump onto that for a bonus question, do you feel you're able to compartmentalize focusing on the task at hand while also knowing you'll be on a plane to Sochi on Sunday to start a long-awaited tournament?
A: "I can compartmentalize pretty well, but for me the big distraction with the Olympics coming up, at least this time with the logistics of trying to figure out who is going, visas, passports, transportation, hotels, tickets; all of that stuff we're done dealing with. We've got itineraries. We know who's going. We know where the tickets are. We know where everyone is staying. So there is no more outside distractions like that. Now everything is in place, so when we finish playing the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday we know we've got a flight to Newark and we're just rolling with it, everything is scheduled. For me, there was more of a distraction, say, two weeks ago when you're trying to sort all those things out, but now we've got our ducks in a row, one task at a time, and everything is set up."
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