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Backes' role as Bruins enforcer won't end well

David Backes' switch from power forward to tough guy is unnecessary, dangerous and could have serious implications long after he stops playing hockey.

David Backes is a really bright guy who is making a really dumb decision, even if it is a “calculated” one.

After registering three fights in the past four games, Backes said he spoke recently with Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy and essentially offered his services as the team’s enforcer. To be clear, there is no questioning Backes’ character on this one. His heart is in the right place, but his head – which has been concussed a number of times – is another matter.

In reality, Backes is making a decision that was no different than the ones made by the players who have filled the enforcers’ role in the past. At some point in their careers, they take stock of where they are and what their skill level is and make a conscious and calculated decision at how they can give themselves the best chance at big-league employment. Most of them are a lot younger and a lot more desperate to play in the NHL than Backes is as a 34-year-old veteran, which is what makes his decision that much more perplexing.

Hey, we get it. Backes is a man of integrity and he probably abhors the thought of collecting $6 million a season (on a contract that runs two more years after this one) and not making any tangible contribution to the team. He sees that the NHL is a young man’s league for those who are fleet of foot. He is neither of those. So, instead of playing on the periphery, collecting his paycheck and riding off into the sunset, Backes has chosen to put himself in danger for the good of his team. He may not be able to play the way he once did, but he’s still 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and he can punch people.

It’s an admirable sentiment. But it’s also unnecessary, dangerous and could possibly have serious long-term implications after he stops playing hockey. And let’s get one thing straight here: this will not end well. And just in case you missed it the first time, it bears repeating: this will not end well.

When Nick Kypreos was 31 years old and hanging onto his career by his fingernails, he went out in a pre-season game and took on Ryan VandenBussche in a fight. It ended with one of the most gruesome scenes in hockey history, with Kypreos lying unconscious while blood pooled around his head. Why in God’s name with all the carnage that fighting has wreaked on players would one with a history of concussions knowingly and willingly engage in bare-knuckle bouts and risk either being punched into oblivion or hitting his head on the ice?

It’s even more bizarre when you consider Backes’ background. He’s a really, really smart guy who could walk away from the game tomorrow and have employers lining up to hire him. In his three years at Minnesota State, Backes had a 4.0-grade point average. He’s an amateur pilot and he’s a leading voice against animal cruelty and an advocate for responsible breeding. If someone this smart and secure in his career is willing to make this decision, how can anyone expect an uneducated player desperate to make his mark to think differently?

Backes has had his brain injured at least three times as a Bruin. Who can forget last year’s playoffs when he absorbed a hit from J.T. Miller of the Tampa Bay Lightning, then held his head in his hands and had to be helped off the ice? And now he’s willing to be punched in the head regularly. He clearly knows the risks he’s taking. “You start adding (concussions) up and trying to work through it,” Backes told reporters. “If you’re multiplying them on top of each other, it starts to get dangerous.”

And that’s exactly what Backes is at risk of doing, all with the blessing of his employer. Will the Bruins be that much more difficult to play against with Backes as their nuclear option? Perhaps. And that’s likely why the Bruins are throwing their support behind him instead of trying to talk him out of it. “We really appreciate that as a staff, and the players do, too,” Cassidy told reporters. “That he’s putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team, and that’s leadership.”

Backes has never been one to shy away from physical play or a fight. According to hockeyfights.com, Backes had 28 career fights before the recent spate of three in four games. But it’s one thing to get involved in a fight organically and quite another to go out on the ice looking for them or feeling as though you have to exact revenge. Of his three most recent fights, one of them was in retaliation for a hit from Michael Ferland of the Carolina Hurricanes that Backes admitted was a perfectly clean bodycheck. That’s troubling.

It’s not too late for Backes to change his mind about this. He has a daughter and a lovely wife he literally met in kindergarten and he has a fulfilling post-hockey life waiting for him. If he doesn’t, it could be a very long and very troubling two final years for him in the NHL, that is if he makes it that long.

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