By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Team USA’s crash-and-burn act at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 did nothing to improve anyone’s opinion of coach John Tortorella or many of the over-hyped players he and general manager Dean Lombardi picked for the squad, but it helped out the Bruins.
Forward David Backes was able to get out of Toronto early. And after a travel day and a couple of days off to hang out with his family over the weekend, Backes got to participate in his first practice as a Bruin on Monday. Backes didn’t participate in the preseason game the Bruins hosted Monday against the Columbus Blue Jackets but the former St. Louis Blues captain, who signed with the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent July 1, expects to get back into full-speed action sometime soon.
“I think if anything good comes of not advancing with Team USA, which would still love to be there, [it’s] being able to get to a new city with a new team and a new area and new practice rink, start to figure things out and set roots down and learn systems and spend time with the coaches,” Backes said. “Maybe this was an opportunity to advance with this team and really get ready for this season, which is why we’re here and why we play the game is to win that Stanley Cup.”
The Bruins are expecting the 32-year-old Backes to bring more than just a rugged approach to the game that can lead to some dirty goals, and strong penalty killing and faceoff work. They want Backes to put his captain’s pedigree to work in the Bruins dressing room. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and has done so several times in the aftermath of Team USA’s losses by responding to questions about sour grapes tweets and comments from players who weren’t on the Team USA roster, most notably Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel.
“It’s easy to sit back and to sling mud and to be one of the guys to say stuff when you’re not a part of it and make you feel good about yourself for a second. But I think, if I wasn’t selected for the team, if I’m not selected for the Olympic team in two years, I’m still American, I’ve still worn that jersey and I’m going to root for those guys and hope everything goes well. … If you’ve got some vindication in not being on the team and that team’s failing and not accomplishing the goal, you can internalize that and use it as motivation going forward and you don’t need to join in the chatter that’s negative and keeps piling on.”
Backes’ comments about the Team USA critics show both the positive side and negative side of his leadership style. On the one hand, although it’s great that he’s as honest as can be, it’s a little distressing that he would let something like a little criticism from outsiders both him. If a humorous tweet from a current player or an insult from a loudmouth retired jock is going to rub Backes the wrong way, what’s he going to do when people start throwing darts at the Bruins during a five-game losing streak? Blocking out the outside noise is so important as an athlete in this day and age, and also in a city like Boston.
But the positive is that Backes is clearly not backing away from being vocal even as he starts out with a new organization in a new city. The Bruins have been lacking leaders that do more than lead by example (another term for boring). With Backes rattling their chains, and backing it up with hard-nosed play, maybe the Bruins can avoid those five-game losing streaks that will bring out the media knives.
Although Backes has changed teams in the NHL for the first time, he seems to understand how to ease into the leadership role. And he plans to continue to speak up.
“Leadership, I think it’s one of those things where you’ve got to earn the trust and the respect of your teammates,” he said. “Some of that comes from playing in the league with them, but some of that comes with playing alongside of them, wearing the jersey with them, having each other’s backs and doing the right thing all over the ice and every day. Once we get into that routine, I think there’s a lot of great leaders in this room. There’s a few that have won a Cup together. And I’m going to try to assimilate and be whatever asset I can in this room so that we can win games, get into the playoffs and keep winning games.”
As long as Backes channels his leadership in the right direction and keeps it focused on what’s going on in the dressing room and not on social media, the Bruins should at least benefit from having someone around that will tell them the truth and make sure they’re accountable.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.