March 1, 2006
Back or Not, Backes Leads Mankato

By Jess Myers

WCHA Notebook

David Backes thanked fans for their support in a letter this week to the Mankato student newspaper.

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When the applause died down after David Backes was named the number one star of the night in his team’s 6-4 win over Wisconsin last Friday, the Minnesota State Mankato junior forward heard a familiar refrain. As he donned headphones for a post-game radio interview, a few dozen Mavericks fans still in the rink chanted, “One More Year! One More Year!” again and again.

“It’s definitely not the first time I’ve heard that,” said Backes, who had two goals and two assists in the defeat of the Badgers. “It feels good to hear that they want me back.”

It’s not a huge surprise that the 6-3, 210-pound Backes, who was picked 62rd overall by the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2003 NHL draft, led the Mavericks offensively in the regular season, with a dozen goals and 28 assists. For some, the biggest surprise isn’t that he’s considering leaving school early, it’s that he’s still in Mankato as a junior.

A highly-touted recruit and one of the leading scorers in the USHL before college, Backes was the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman (behind offensive star Shane Joseph) and led the team with 40 points as a sophomore, prompting many to speculate he’d sign a pro contract last summer. With his third regular season of college hockey now complete, the talk of Backes bolting for NHL money is heating up again. Backes says he’s made no decisions.

“When it comes right down to it, I’ve got to do what’s best for me,” he told INCH. “That might mean coming back, but it also might mean moving on.”

The Blues, for their part, know they have potential in Backes.

"We like him," Blues general manager Larry Pleau told INCH. "He has size and a good shot, and those are some assets that are definitely NHL. His skating definitely has to improve some, but he really seems to have some good instrincts for the game."

While some potential pros sign to get away from the grind of going to class, those who want Backes back in purple next season say academics are their best hope of keeping him in Mankato for his senior year. Backes is an electrical engineering major with a 4.0 average and is reportedly very committed to getting his degree. And Backes says his acquired affection for southern Minnesota might play a role in his final decision too.

“I love it here, and the fans have been great,” said Backes, who earlier this week penned a letter published in the Mankato student newspaper, thanking fans for their support throughout the season, and mentioning his hope that it continues next season. “I really like this community and would like to live here someday when I’m done playing, so I’d have no qualms about coming back here for another year.”


DECC doings: In the second half of the season, on-ice wins have been hard to come by for Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs head into this weekend’s season finale at Minnesota having won just once in their past dozen games. But the program and the backers of college hockey in the Twin Ports got a huge victory off the ice this week.

On Tuesday, Duluth voters approved a referendum to raise the local sales tax on food and beverages, with the additional funds to go toward the construction of a new waterfront arena. The project, which is expected to cost more than $60 million, is not a done deal yet, but supporters agree this is a significant step toward replacing the WCHA’s oldest arena.

“This is a very positive sign that Duluth has come out so strongly for the DECC,” State Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon told the Duluth News-Tribune. “This makes it easy for the legislators from this area to go down to St. Paul and say, ‘Our community strongly backs this project, and it is a project that will benefit all of Northeastern Minnesota.’”

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St. Cloud State at Wisconsin (Fri.-Sat.)
Alaska Anchorage and Minnesota State Mankato are idle during the final regular season weekend and at least four more really have nothing to play for. But there’s plenty at stake at the Kohl Center when Wisconsin hosts St. Cloud State. Despite losing a valuable point last weekend when they tied at home, the Huskies still have a shot at home ice, but probably need a sweep. The Badgers are desperately seeking their swagger, or a minimum some dose of confidence to carry them into the playoffs after going 3-7-1 in the last six weeks and watching the MacNaughton Cup slip from their once rock-solid grasp.

While You’re There: It’s not anywhere near as hyped as the one in Minnesota, but the High School Hockey Tournament for Wisconsin will be held this weekend at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison – formerly known as Dane County Coliseum when it was the home of Badger hockey. Eight teams (Eau Claire North, University School, Stevens Point, Kettle Moraine/Mukwonago, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln, Middleton and defending champ Superior) will square off, with the top two meeting for the state title at 2:15 p.m. Saturday.

Stick Salute

A nod to Division III St. John’s University coach John Harrington (father of Gopher defenseman Chris Harrington) for his unique way to honor his team’s seniors last weekend. Harrington began the Johnnies’ game versus Gustavus with a deliberate too many men penalty so that all nine of his seniors could say they started their final home game.

Bench Minor

There have been hints dropped that Denver coach George Gwozdecky’s ejection from last Friday’s game may have been an intentional move designed to motivate his club. Hey Gwoz, stick to what you do best, namely winning championships, and leave the “getting tossed on purpose” stuff to hoops coaches and overweight baseball managers.

The tax increase, which would raise $1.2 million per year for the projects, still needs approval from the State Legislature and Governor Tim Pawlenty, and the city is asking the state to provide more than $33 million to cover half of the project’s total cost. In his initial state funding recommendations last month, Pawlenty did not advocate money for the DECC project, but told INCH last week that he may support it in the future if the referendum passed.

More than 60 percent of those voting cast “yes” votes, with strong student support and high turnout at the on-campus polling place.

“I thought it would be closer than that, but it’s perfect. We needed some good news,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who lives in nearby Hermantown, Minn., and therefore couldn’t vote in the referendum. “The whole community needs something like this, not just for the hockey part. I think we could even bid on a (NCAA) regional down the road.”

If approved by the legislature, the local sales tax on food and beverages would increase from 9 percent to 9.75 percent. The school and the city have plans for a new building with more than 6,600 seats to be built on the site of the current DECC parking lot. If funding is approved this spring and construction progresses as scheduled, the arena would be open for the start of the 2008-09 season.


• Alaska Anchorage will open the playoffs at Minnesota on March 10 riding a 13-game winless streak. Although that sounds like a long drought, they’re nowhere near the team record for rough sledding. One would have to have a pretty short memory to forget the 35-game winless skid the Seawolves endured in the 2002-03 season.

• After a several-week funk in January and February, Colorado College heads into this weekend’s home-and-home series with Denver having won six of its last seven. A sweep of the Pioneers and the Tigers could finish as high as a tie for second place in the WCHA standings.

• By recording another Saturday tie last weekend at St. Cloud State, the Huskies from Michigan Tech have now earned at least one point in eight consecutive WCHA series. It’s their longest such streak by the Huskies since the 1992-93 season, when they went 11 straight WCHA series without being swept.

• With last weekend’s sweep at Alaska Anchorage, Minnesota claimed its first outright WCHA regular season title since Doug Woog, Larry Olimb, Darby Hendrickson, Trent Klatt, Doug Zmolek and company did it in 1991-92. In claiming his fourth career MacNaughton Cup, Gophers coach Don Lucia becomes the first head coach in league history to win WCHA titles at two different schools. Lucia became the first coach to claim three consecutive WCHA titles when he led Colorado College to the Cup in his first three seasons there.

• Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but North Dakota has a pretty bright future if its freshman class decides to hang around Grand Forks for a few more seasons. Of the nine goals the Sioux scored in last weekend’s split at Denver, eight of them were scored by rookies. Jonathan Toews, the freshman from Winnipeg who has pro scouts raving, had two goals in the Friday win and one in the Saturday loss, and was named the WCHA’s Rookie of the Week for his efforts.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report.