BRIGHTON, Mass. -- David Backes sounded healthy and happy on Thursday afternoon after getting through a second full practice with the Bruins since returning from a suspected concussion.
The 34-year-old has missed the last two weeks after taking a Matt Benning elbow to the jaw in Edmonton that went un-penalized and without any supplemental discipline from the Department of Player Safety.
The good news is that, barring any setbacks, Backes is set to return to the B’s lineup Saturday night in Nashville.
The less-encouraging news is that it’s the third concussion Backes has suffered since signing with the Bruins three years ago, and none of the head shots that caused them have merited any kind of supplemental discipline from the league. That’s a factoid that clearly bugs the power forward and Backes said as much when talking to reporters on Thursday afternoon once the dual subjects of concussions and head shots came up.
“You start piling them up and it’s not ever fun when or if you have a concussion. But you start piling them up and trying to work through it, and if you’re multiplying them on top of each other then it starts to get dangerous,” said Backes. “There’s a sensitivity level throughout the league and throughout the educated world that you don’t want to get hit in the head unnecessarily. It certainly is part of our game where you’re going to have contact to your head, but [the problem is] the unnecessary contact to the head when you have an opportunity to go through the body and have the same effect game-wise.
“It’s what is paramount to having the game changed, but in the three concussions that I’ve had [with the Bruins] there have been no suspensions on them. I think they were on the line if not over the line, and there’s been no secondary looks at them.”
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Clearly the subject of head shots, concussion and supplemental discipline is something that Backes has strong feelings about from a league perspective. But there’s a smaller, more individual worry that starts to come up with a seasoned, proven warrior in his mid-30’s like Backes, as he closes in on 900 regular-season games for his career. It’s the growing number of concussions he’s suffered over the course of a hard-hitting, physical hockey career, and the unknown that comes along with professional hockey players and the dangers of CTE.
Backes is intelligent, thoughtful and diligent when it comes to playing the game of hockey, and there’s no doubt he’s the same when it comes to his own long term health.
“I’ve done some research and I don’t know that there’s a direct link as to whether it’s 14, or 7, or 2 [concussions] there’s a direct link to degenerating, or getting the proteins in your head to start developing CTE,” said Backes. “There’s not enough evidence yet, but that being said not getting to that magic number is certainly something that I’d like to avoid.”
The reality is that Backes at his best played a big, strong and nasty brand of hockey that combined physicality with toughness around the front of the net. The NHL’s trend toward speed and skill certainly hasn’t done him any favors, and that’s probably reflected in the zero points in seven games for the Bruins thus far this season. But at 34 years old, Backes is also slowing down and becoming more of an attainable target for players like J.T. Miller and Matt Benning that have dealt him concussive blows in each of the last two seasons.
The Miller hit in the playoffs ended Backes’ postseason prematurely last spring, and the Benning hit kept Backes out for two plus weeks. It’s clearly good news that Backes can still bounce back from a head shot and the ensuing concussion, but it’s also beginning to become a situation where more head shots and concussions could start having more of a residual effect.
Backes is a proud warrior and the Bruins definitely need his size, his strength, his physicality and his leadership up front among a forward group that’s predominantly young and small. Maybe it’s that the Bruins need to respond with more vengeful authority when these hits happen as they have a few times this season. Maybe it’s the league that needs to step in and protect Backes the next time somebody throws the kind of head shot at Backes that he himself was suspended for the first time in his NHL career last season. Maybe at some point, Backes needs to play the game a little more protectively to make certain he’s not in those vulnerable spots where he can be targeted for head shots, though it’s easy to see that mindset could make him a lot less effective at his NHL gig.
The bottom line is that Backes is entering a stage in his NHL career where avoiding concussions might be one of the biggest keys to continued career longevity, but that’s a lot easier said than done.
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