Change of Plans

img-4David Backes had a plan for his future when he came to Minnesota State Mankato in the fall of 2003—and it didn’t include hockey.

“I was going to get a degree in engineering, go to law school and become a patent lawyer,” Backes says. “Then hockey got in the way.”

Backes concedes that he knew that might happen. By the time he came to Mankato, he had already played two years of junior hockey and been drafted with the 62nd overall pick in the National Hockey League’s Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues. But even so, Backes figured that his odds of becoming a patent lawyer were far better than becoming a professional hockey player.

“I knew that playing in the NHL was a possibility—but a slim one at best,” he says. “So I thought it was more important to stay focused on school and be glad for the opportunity to play hockey while I was there.”

He was so focused on academics that he had a 4.0 grade point average as an electrical engineering major. But he was also so dedicated to the sport he had played since grade school that by the end of his junior year, he had amassed 119 points (goals and assists combined) in 115 games. That combination earned him Academic All-America honors. It also hastened the Blues’ desire to sign the young forward to a professional contract, which happened shortly after the 2005-06 hockey season ended.

“I didn’t expect to leave early,” says Backes, who finished his junior year before signing with the Blues. “That wasn’t my plan at all. That’s just the way it worked out.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Because the 31-year-old Backes, who has played nine seasons with the Blues and has twice represented the United States in the Olympic Games, wasn’t satisfied with that as the ending. He wanted to finish what he had started in Mankato. And so, in 2014, he officially graduated, earning a Bachelor of Science in Applied Organizational
Studies with a focus on nonprofit leadership.

“It was very important to me to finish up and get my degree,” he says. “I realized that there’s life after hockey. I’ll be able to play professionally
until I’m 35, maybe 40. I need to have a degree for the next 40 years, too.”

From Lawyer to Leader
Backes’ dream is no longer to be a patent lawyer. Instead, his focus has shifted to the foundation that he and his wife Kelly, who graduated from Minnesota State Mankato with a degree in health science, started in 2013. That foundation—Athletes for Animals (—sharpened Backes’ focus on nonprofit leadership as he finished his degree.

“We really want to be able to use the platform we’ve been given to effect social change,” he explains. “We’re in a position to be able to do something and to have a positive impact. So I wanted to be able to focus on the nonprofit end of things.”

David and Kelly started Athletes for Animals to bring awareness to the plight of homeless pets and to encourage people—including other professional athletes—to adopt them. Backes made headlines early in 2014, when he returned from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with two puppies he and Kelly rescued there. But the couple’s obsession with animals started long before then.

“It actually started in Mankato,” Backes says. “We volunteered at BENCHS [the Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society], walking the animals there. We didn’t think it would be responsible to have our own pets then, because
we were living in apartments. So those were our surrogates at the time.”

Before they left Mankato, they made their first adoption: Polly, a cat who still lives with them in St. Louis, along with another cat and four dogs.

Backes recognizes that his role as a professional hockey player allows him to bring attention to something he cares deeply about. He also knows that it was his experience at Minnesota State Mankato that prepared him to
go pro.

“Those are critical years in the development of a hockey player, between 19 and 22,” he says. “They were big years for me in terms of maturity—physically and mentally. I had the opportunity to take on leadership roles at Mankato, which helped me grow as a person, too.”

That’s one of the reasons he’s committed to staying connected to his alma mater. He regularly returns to play in the annual Dan Meyer Golf Classic, a fundraiser for hockey scholarships, and recently provided financial support for the renovations underway at the Verizon Wireless Center. His schedule—and the birth of his first child, Stella—makes it hard for him to watch the Mavericks in action, but he continues to follow the team as much as he can.

“It’s really been great to watch the evolution of this team, now with a new facility and a coaching change,” he says. “I think some hard decisions had to be made for the betterment of the team, but the result is a No. 1 ranking. There’s a lot of pride in this program right now.”

Such success makes it easier to bring in talented recruits—some of whom may have the same opportunity that Backes did to go pro. Like him, they will likely take it.

“It’s everything you imagined it would be,” he admits with a smile, “and then some.”  —Sara Gilbert Frederick