Former NHL'er David Backes finds positive lifestyle changes promoting plant-based food in Minnesota
A year after retirement from pro hockey has meant positive lifestyle changes for David Backes and his wife, Kelly, as they prepare for their biggest post-hockey venture with the opening of a new restaurant.
EDINA, Minn. — Of all of the painful things that can happen to the human body while playing hockey at the game’s fastest and most intense levels — from cut lips to dislocated shoulders to torn knee ligaments to concussions — the one ailment that would change David Backes’ life most dramatically came in the form of a stomach ache.
More than a decade into a NHL career that would span parts of 15 seasons, Backes came down with diverticulitis, an often painful inflammation of the digestive tract, which can be caused by the way a person’s body processes food.
Backes’ wife, Kelly, had switched to a plant-based diet years earlier, so there was a road map available to follow, showing how a person — even a high-level athlete — could get all of the necessary nutrients and energy from alternative foods.
“I had to figure out all the variables I could control. I was primarily a meat and veggies kind of guy, and the meat had to go because it was slow digesting,” Backes recalled this week. “I started getting more fiber in my diet with more plants and more fast-digesting foods and I’m feeling great. That was my reason for becoming more plant-based.”
A season ago, Backes’ 15th year in the NHL turned out to be his last. Drafted by St. Louis while he was playing for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars in 2003, the former Spring Lake Park prep standout first played three seasons in a go-to role at Minnesota State Mankato, and was one of the Mavericks’ true superstars.
From there it was 10 seasons with the Blues, three-plus with the Boston Bruins, then a handful of games with the Anaheim Ducks.
“I played 15 games during COVID on a team that was in the middle of a rebuild, and I was kind of a dinosaur, so it was time,” Backes said of his decision to retire at the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
Today the family splits time between homes in the Twin Cities and in southern California where their two children are still in school. They are working to decide which place to make their year-round home. Last summer, while searching for a vegan-friendly place to take their kids for dinner, the Backes family happened upon an eatery called Stalk & Spade in Wayzata.
“Best plant-based food we’d had. On the way home, looking at the website, we saw franchising opportunities and started to dip a toe in,” David said. “We kept waiting for the flags to pop up that said ‘You shouldn’t do this’ and they never came up, so we’re doing it.”
This week, David and Kelly were busy inside their first Stalk & Spade restaurant, which was set to open in Edina’s trendy 50th & France neighborhood on Friday, April 29. The seating area was empty, but the kitchen was a beehive of activity, with their newly-hired workforce busy making plant-based burgers, chicken sandwiches and sweet potato fries, as the owners focused on the multitudes of little things — cooking oil temperature in the fryers, ice machine production at the drink station, etc. — that accompany a successful restaurant operation.
Kelly noted that where plant-based eating was more of a fad even 10 years ago, it is much more of a common lifestyle choice today, with more people going meat-free one or two days a week, or making the switch permanent.
David majored in electrical engineering, while Kelly has a nursing degree, so this is uncharted territory for the Backes clan.
“We’ve never been in business before,” David said. “So it’s new for both of us and something we’re doing together post-retirement to further the plant-based movement, which is something we’re passionate about. This has definitely been a learning experience for the both of us. Franchising is something we never saw in our future.”
Skills with a smile
On the ice, Backes was the prototypical “gentle giant” who moved the puck with the long arms and legs attached to his 6-foot-3 frame, and was capable of playing the gritty net-front game as well as highly skilled hockey. He quickly ascended to a leadership position on each of his teams, even wearing an "A" in Anaheim, where he played 21 games before hanging up the skates.
While some players struggle after walking away from pro sports, Backes notes with pride that he has skated three times post-retirement — in a beer league game last August, on a frozen pond with some friends at Christmastime, and in the Hockey Day Minnesota alumni game in Mankato in January. He never woke up after retiring and asked himself, “Now what?”
“The ‘now what’ was to be present for our kids,” David said. “To be available to get them to school and back, and to be around for their dance recitals and t-ball games, and that’s still the focus.”
The hardest moments of a pro athlete’s life, he said, were not the playoff losses or the injuries, but rather those mornings where you would get home from a road trip at 2 a.m. and need to be up with the kids four hours later, acting like a human being when you felt like a zombie.
“It’s been a nice lifestyle change,” Backes admitted.
Still, with his first pro hockey employer — the Blues — and his hometown NHL team — the Wild — set to meet on the ice in the playoffs next week, Backes admitted keeping an eye on the scoreboard.
“It’s going to be a great series. Look at how those teams have been playing lately. They’re probably the hottest teams in the league,” he said. “I think it’s going to come down to goaltending, and if I had to pick one of the tandems, I like the Wild’s goalies.”
A habit of giving back
While running a business is new territory for the Backes family, they have been busy using their name and resources to better the world for a decade. David and Kelly have been the driving forces behind Athletes for Animals , which has raised nearly $1 million for shelters and rescue groups since it was founded.
The restaurants — they plan to open a second Stalk & Spade in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis in the summer, once the Edina location is up and running — are the perfect merger of their lifestyle and their drive to start the next part of their lives, away from the hockey rink.
“For so long, Kelly put her dreams on hold so that I could chase mine in the hockey world,” David said. “Now…this is something that we can do together and chase this next chapter as a team.”
With that, lunch was served. The typical-looking fast food tray held a classic deluxe cheeseburger, french fries and sweet potato fries. But the patty was plant-based, the cheese was vegan and the garlic mayo was made without eggs. The Diet Coke on the side was traditional. For the record, it all tasted fantastic.
“You have to have a ‘why’ behind doing something like this,” said Kelly, who met David in kindergarten, and was his high school prom date. “We’re so worried about health and wellness — how can we live longer, live better and treat our bodies better. I think there’s a deep connection, whether it’s to the environment or to the animals or to our health as to what you consume and why you consume it.”
David admitted that he has not gone completely plant-based, and like any good Minnesota boy he still craves a nice filet of fried walleye now and then. Still, in their new restaurant venture, they hope to have found another great “what next” after a successful career on the ice.
“Guys are willing to try anything to feel better and perform better, and plant-based eating — even if it’s marginal change — is on that list,” David said. “And if you can make it taste good, you can make a lifestyle change.”