Going To The Dogs

Veteran Forward David Backes Still Proving He’s A Canine’s Best Friend


Through many seasons in the NHL, David Backes established himself as a gritty forward, not afraid to dish out hard hits to shut down opposing offenses. But, in recent years, some may say that Backes’ career has gone to the dogs – and in a sense, they’re not wrong. 

When the 35-year-old winger isn’t on the ice, his soft spot for four-legged friends shines through in his work with Athletes For Animals, a united team of professional athletes with a shared passion for rescuing and protecting the welfare of homeless pets nationwide. 

Backes and his wife, Kelly, started the foundation while he still played for the St. Louis Blues. Since then, their love of animals has eclipsed both time and sports.

David had one rescue dog growing up, but Kelly had what Backes described as a “petting zoo of animals.” Through high school and college, in lieu of getting pets of their own, the couple took up volunteering.

“We wanted an animal of our own but we knew it was an irresponsible decision at the time,” Backes said. “We started volunteering at local animal shelters and, from there, blossomed a real love for helping those animals in need.”

Once David started playing with the Blues, the couple knew that they could utilize their platform and the voice they had that was unique to that of other volunteers. After years of lending their voices to animal organizations, they created Athletes For Animals as a way to really amplify the work they were already doing. 

But it was the Minneapolis native’s selection to Team USA for the 2014 Olympics that took their platform to an international level – and tested the couple’s dedication to animal welfare.

Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there was uproar about the country’s choice to hire exterminators for the immense number of homeless animals in an attempt to clean up the area’s image. Backes went into the Games with more than hockey on his mind.

“Obviously, that’s not aligned with our morals,” he said. “Going there, I told my wife that we would help in any way we could but the idea of trying to bring home dogs from Russia was not feasible.

“We were trying to educate the locals and seeing if we could donate to set up some infrastructure to help them help themselves.”

The U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team hoped to bring back a medal but, in the end, Backes flew home with far more precious cargo. Two stray puppies – Sochi Junior and Sochi Jake – accompanied the couple back home after Kelly convinced David that bringing dogs home and sharing their stories would be far more impactful that doing something on the ground in Russia. 

Those two puppies are now fully-grown and, while the Backeses couldn’t add them to their already large pack, they flourished with other hockey families. Jack found a home with Derek Stepan, who plays for the Arizona Coyotes. Junior moved in with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk’s parents.

Despite happy-endings for the Sochi puppies, the Backeses never slacked on their mission to help animals. In just six years, Athletes For Animals has dished out more than $660,000 to animal shelters and rescue groups across North America, directly impacting more than 5,500 animals. In 2019 alone, Athletes For Animals contributed $135,395 to 83 organizations. They also have 28 professional athlete ambassadors that share the their passion for animal welfare.

At 35, Backes’ hockey career is beginning to wind down, but his dedication to charity work – be it with animals, veterans or those with disabilities – has never wavered. For David, as long as he as the means and opportunity to help, he will.

“I think we, as athletes, have a special voice, have a platform. A great perk of being a professional athlete is to have some sort of social influence and be able to stand up for a cause and see real, tangible change,” said Backes, who was placed on waivers by the Boston Bruins on Jan. 9 but still has hopes of catching on with another NHL team.

“If we don’t lend that out to somebody or speak up for a cause we’re passionate about, then we’re really wasting a beautiful opportunity.”

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