Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The irony of David Backes writing to thank the students for their effort this past weekend in today’s MSU Reporter was not lost on me. With that said, I give my tribute to the captain of the Mavericks.

Forty-three hundred fans bought a ticket for a hockey game at the Midwest Wireless Center on Friday, but instead were treated to a fine theatrical performance. Though it may have been lost in Brian Elliott’s shaky return and the Badgers late-season collapse, there was a drama that would have made any playwright jealous.

The crowd on hand was Mankato’s largest crowd of the season, meaning many people were at their first game this year, and thanks to a sluggish start from the home team that saw them trailing 3-0 early in the first period, it seemed as though it would be the last game for many, as they sat silently in their seats, contemplating all the other ways they could have spent their Friday night.

And then it happened. One of those perfect moments where everything slows down to 1/10th speed and you can feel everything happen before it actually does.

Mankato got their first powerplay of the game with 15 seconds left in the first period and captain David Backes, the hero of the story, took the puck from a clean faceoff win at the top of the circle with a defender charging at him. This situation had been played out on many previous nights, usually resulting in the puck being innocently dumped in the corner or a weak shot deflecting off the defender and out of the zone. But Backes decided tonight was different.

With near perfect precision, Backes eluded the would-be defender and fired a hard shot along the ice. Unlike previous weeks, this shot was different. Instead of being tipped away by a defender, the puck zoomed by just out of reach. Instead of being turned away by the goalie, it found the precious few inches of space between his pads and traveled unhindered into the soft padding of the back of the net.

For many of the newer fans at the game, especially in the pit of the student section, it was merely a goal that brought Mankato one goal closer to being back in the game. They were like groundlings cheering for Katherine to finally marry Petruccio, not realizing the beauty or significance of the play itself.

But those that knew the story better cheered just a little louder for the story of redemption. Backes’ jubilant fist-pumping celebration was a simple reminder that as hard as it may be for fans to see their team’s best player go 11 straight games without scoring a goal during the most critical pat of the season, nobody bears the burden more than the player himself.

Backes has always seemed bigger than Minnesota State. Not that you would ever be able to guess if you saw the hard work he puts in or the way he is around his teammates. But Backes has the opportunity leave early to continue his hockey career at a school where it’s more likely that a guy leaves early to continue his life after hockey. At times, it seems like casting Sir Laurence Olivier in Dude, Where’s My Car?

His goal was bigger than just the game itself too. The rest of the team was more than willing to follow the example of their captain. Not only did the goal lift a ton of pressure off of Backes, it seemed to take some pressure off the rest of his teammates and give them the extra jump that they were missing. The Mavericks scored again less than 10 seconds later, and eventually went on to score four more unanswered goals. What looked like a miserable defeat was transformed into an easy 6-4 victory. The hero had overcome his demons, both internal and external, to lead his team back from the brink of defeat and save the day. It would be tough to write a greater tale.

Though many of the newer fans left as soon as the game was over to head off to their post-game celebrating, those that understood waited to give their hero one last standing ovation as he was named the first star of the game.

David Backes didn’t just change the game on Friday. He changed Minnesota State hockey. He brought the 4300 fans in attendance out of their seats, and more importantly, gave them a reason to come back the following night, when the Mavericks surpassed the previous night’s total by almost 700 fans. And I can almost guarantee that those fans can’t wait to catch the next show.


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