Kalman: Let’s set the record straight on David Backes, Bruce Cassidy and fighting

Matt Kalman
March 07, 2019 - 3:46 pm

While there’s pearl-clutching going on around the NHL with pundits and pontificators acting as though David Backes is some lost kitten in need of rescue, let’s take a second to read what the Bruins forward actually said after he had his third scrap in four games Tuesday night.

“I asked [Bruce Cassidy], when we were in Vegas and we had a meeting, if I could be put in roles or places that would have a bigger impact on games. And you know, whether that’s with my gloves off or my gloves on I think he’s provided me those opportunities and hopefully I’ve done my job for him,” Backes said after he the Bruins defeated Carolina in a game that featured him fighting Hurricanes power forward Micheal Ferland.

Notice the part about “with my gloves off or my gloves on” in the quote? There’s no role for someone to fight every night anymore. That role was eliminated years ago. Although fighting is decreasing every season, it’s still a part of the game and it’s vital for every team with championship aspirations to have at least two or three players who can handle themselves in a tilt.

Nowhere did Backes say that he was going to fight every night until Cassidy takes him out of the lineup, nor did Cassidy order him to fight in order to retain his job. Cassidy was asked after the Hurricanes game whether he worries about Backes, in light of the 34-year old’s concussion history. The coach made it clear he was concerned and wasn’t the one egging Backes on to take on some of the toughest players in the league.

“I do, I worry about [him]. … Listen, they’re human beings first, and when you coach them every day that’s always a concern,” Cassidy said. “But David, I think, is grabbing onto an area of the lineup where he feels he can contribute. So we really appreciate that as a staff and the players do too, that he’s putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team, and that’s leadership.”

The fact that Backes’s three fights have come in a four-game span has made this a bigger story than it should be. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News and Justin Cuthbert of Yahoo! have a right to be concerned that a player might be taking an unnecessary risk with his health, and there’s no one with a soul that wants to see anything debilitating happen to Backes.

But asking him to call it quits rather than fight, like Campbell did, is a bridge too far.

Backes was right in pointing out that the risk of head injury in a fight is less than a multitude of other ways a player could get hurt during the game. There’s outrage when a player gest checked into the glass or hit from behind in the open ice and the Department of Player Safety has to step in. There are thousands of other hits each season that don’t cause immediate injury and are looked past but could be more dangerous in the long run than any punch to a helmeted head during a fight.

Heck, stepping on the ice with Tom Wilson or Zac Rinaldo could be seen as an unnecessary risk for any player, especially one with a history of head injuries.

Instead of just seeing Backes fight a few times and pleading with him to stop, one should look at the circumstances that led to the fights and what his standing up for the Bruins meant to his team. The bout with San Jose’s Micheal Haley came after Backes felt like Haley was trying to embarrass him. Tampa Bay’s Adam Erne cross checked Backes into the post before the two dropped the gloves. And the fight with Ferland was an answer to the hit Ferland threw that injured Marcus Johansson. Even Backes admitted it was a clean hit, but in this sport The Code dictates that sometimes a player has to pay the price even if his bone-crushing check was legal.

We might not see Backes fight again for weeks. But with the Bruins’ lineup the way it is right now, there’s no better candidate than him to clean up any garbage going on. Backes has struggled to get 14 points in 54 games. You’d rather he get five minutes in the box than minute-muncher Zdeno Chara or one of Boston’s multi-talented bottom-six forwards like Chris Wagner, Noel Acciari or Sean Kuraly. Kevan Miller is out of the lineup with an upper-body injury.

This isn’t all to say that concerns about Backes’ long-term health are unwarranted. But every player is taking a risk when he takes the ice, every check is a brain-jarring experience and there are many roles on a hockey team that have to be filled. He’s a player with 13 years of NHL experience and knows what he’s doing. The Bruins aren’t asking or demanding that he drop the gloves; they’re just not stopping him from doing it when he thinks it’s warranted and when he thinks he can make a mark on a game by fighting.

The only people trying to tell Backes to do something he doesn’t want to do are the ones asking him to quit the game that he loves or let his teammates defend themselves.

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