‘It All Started With His Knee Bend’: The Inside Story of How Skating Guru Katie McDonough Transformed David Backes

Katie McDonough's focus on fundamentals fixed David Backes' weakest part of his game

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Fogerty Arena could serve as a shrine to David Backes.

Tucked in Blaine, Minnesota, the ice house played host to Backes’ three productive years from 1999-2002 with Spring Lake Park High School. His No. 5 is retired in the arena where it drapes right next to an American flag.

The symbolism is obvious.

Every summer, he goes and talks to the high school players when time allows. To them, along with the rest of the community, he’s a legend and a hero — one who’s achievements they could only dream of.

With that in mind, Fogerty Arena is probably the last place on Earth Backes could imagine himself being humbled.

All of that changed on the afternoon of July 23.

The arena has two sheets of ice. While Backes played on one ice surface that afternoon, Katie McDonough, a former figure skater turned power skating coach, led a group of 12-year-old girls on the other. McDonough asked for Backes to come over and say hi to the girls, which he did graciously.

“We were probably 75 percent of the way through our practice so he was coming on the tail end of it,” McDonough said in an interview with CLNS Media. “He came out on the ice and said ‘hi’ and asked the girls what we were working on. I showed him and they of course asked if he would do the drill with us. And he did.”

What happened next was best put by Backes who described it as “divine intervention”. Backes stifled in a mohawk drill — one in which both feet point away from each other and away from the body to eliminate the need for a crossover when going from skating forwards to backwards — that the girls did without issue.

“When he says he couldn’t do it, he’s not giving himself enough credit,” said McDonough. “He struggled through doing it and definitely didn’t do it with ease that the girls were doing it with.”

Even though McDonough claims that high-level players struggle with these types of drills “all the time”, an NHL veteran making $6 million a year couldn’t do a drill better than children in middle school and this rightfully stunned Backes, leading him to call McDonough later that night asking her to work with him.

“I wasn’t shocked,” McDonough said of when Backes called for help. “If you were to put a group of NHL players in, I would say 50 percent of them would’ve had the reaction David did. They’re humble guys and they understand what’s important and they need to have those fundamentals. You know hockey players. Some of their egos get in the way and they don’t need to do extra, right? They get to the level where they’re at and going through the motions is good enough.

“I think David got stuck in that rut for a minute. I think he was going through the motions rather than being intentional with what his motions are. And that caught up to him.”

Identifying Weaknesses 

McDonough didn’t have a plan for her sessions with Backes until the first time they got on the ice.

Even crazier: Backes was her first ever one-on-one NHL client. The task was daunting — fix the skating habits of a 35-year-old veteran who’s in a league that’s trending away from him.

“Originally, I asked him if he had any videos of himself skating where I could just see a few clips outside of a game situation,” said McDonough. “He didn’t.”

McDonough was going to have to perform an amazing improv routine in her first session with the two-time Olympian.

In that first session, she watched him skate and showed him a few things to do so she could record his actions and pick out the weaknesses in his technique.

“I had to try and be nice because there was a lot that I was throwing at him all at one time and I didn’t want him to get discouraged,” said McDonough.

According to McDonough, Backes’ weaknesses began in a very important place.

“It all started with his knee bend,” she said. “Knee bend affects everything in a good way or a bad way. If you’re not doing it, everything suffers. He had a bad habit of just jumping on the ice and going through the motions rather than just consciously thinking of reminding himself ‘I need to get down in my knees’. And when you don’t have knee bend, you’re unable to reach full extension. And without full extension, you’re unable to get good pushes off of your blades and your edges.”

The issues with his knee bend caused lots of other problems with his skating.

“He wasn’t looking through the ice,” said McDonough. “I always tell players you need to see where you’re going before you’re on the way there and his head turn was slow and delayed. Head affects upper body too.”

Because of Backes’ head turns being delayed from his body, it slowed his ability to jump in the play and more importantly, to see where he was going to go on the ice. These are things that sound incredibly simple, but were lost on Backes.

“Part of David was he was forgetting to move sometimes on the ice,” said McDonough. “I went back and watched clips of him and from the beginning of when I watched him in some scrimmages. I think he wasn’t seeing the game he could see from where he was positioning himself on the ice.”

With the weaknesses identified, it was time for McDonough and Backes to quickly get to work because similar to Backes’ career, time wasn’t on their side.

45-Minute Warmups & Building Blocks

From the time of Backes’ call for help to McDonough, the duo worked together three to four times a week all the way up until Labor Day weekend.

When Backes first told the story to reporters, he recalled how “sore” he was.

“It was a rude awakening day one, and then night one and night two with how sore that I was,” said Backes. “I was using muscles that I had either neglected or had stiffened up. And it was necessary.”

That rude awakening came from a warmup McDonough issues to every skater she instructs — a 15-minute warmup that usually takes roughly 45 minutes on the first day.

“I’m fixing their technique and their body positioning and their weight distribution that much,” said McDonough of giving out that first warmup. “That’s how bad their bad habits affect them.”

And it was no different with Backes. When he was sore after the first few times, McDonough explained how and why that was the case.

“You’re waking up muscles that you haven’t been engaging and you’re reminding them they need to be engaged all while you’re giving other muscles a break that you were working so hard that didn’t need to be working because you were compensating,” McDonough told Backes. “There’s a lot you’re going to feel.

“As soon as we established that position, everything becomes easier.”

Because of the level Backes was already skating at, progress was made right away. In just a week, the 15-minute warmup began to become just that — a 15-minute warmup. That paved the way for McDonough to instill her core skating principle.

“Skating is very similar to a set of building blocks,” said McDonough. “If we’re missing one of those blocks, we’re going to be affected. And at some point, we’re not going to progress or move forward. We’re limited with what our skill level is and if we have all of those building blocks, we can continuously build on top of them.

“But we can’t do that if we’re missing some of them and that all starts with what the fundamentals are.”

A 13-year NHL veteran and his building blocks. That’s what it came down to.

Every week consisted of a different plan; with every passing practice, McDonough added another block on what they’d already been working on. That block always came once they revisited what they’d done in the previous practice.

“We were making sure we had the repetition so he was consistently having to practice the right form and technique every time we were on the ice,” said McDonough. “You have to skate your stride to make sure you’re staying with it.”

As time wore on and Backes made more and more progress, the focuses shifted from quick starts, to edge work, to power turns. Everything began to change. His breathing changed and with that, how he saw the ice changed, too. Blocks were stacked on top of blocks at a more rapid pace.

“Every skill you can do, we did,” said McDonough. “And then we put those skills together and we added a puck in. But every practice we were trying to add another ingredient for him. We were always building.”

With more and more being added to Backes’ skating drills, things actually became simpler — it was a greater focus on the fundamentals, which is something that often gets lost in professional hockey players with all the factors that go into a season.

“They’re practicing these different plays and at some point, who remembered to remind them to bend their knees? To look through their turns? To make sure that they have knees over toe?” said McDonough. “Very simple things that are very simple and easy to overlook or forget about and then they get negatively affected from that.”

Keeping Morale Up

Backes called the re-indulgence into his skating “painful at times”. He called not being able to do a drill done by 12-year-old girls “maybe the most humbled I’d ever been in my life”.

Coupled with Backes being a healthy scratch for a lot of the Bruins’ playoff run and his future heavily in jeopardy with the team, his morale wasn’t exactly high.

That’s where McDonough had to play a role that went beyond just being a skating coach.

“Every time I’m on the ice with players — it doesn’t matter the level — I’m always playing a role of being a sports psychologist,” said McDonough. “Your mental game is just as important as your physical game. I will tell you he was humble and he was discouraged when he would watch myself or my staff skate through a drill.

“I could physically see his facial expression just sink. He wasn’t losing color in his face, but it was like ‘what just happened? What did they just do? How do you expect me to do that?'”

There was doubt for sure. But according to McDonough, it was never too serious. It mainly came from being a bit overwhelmed with having to do a lot of different things in a drill at a high speed.

It all pointed back to the building blocks.

“As we worked through the summer, it wasn’t just a skill we were working on — we were trying to work on the mental aspect of it too,” said McDonough. “As we got better at each drill or skill, I would marry them together so we’re moving through at a fast pace and we’re doing four different skills in one drill. Mentally you’re challenging them and physically you’re challenging them, which is important.”

Backes admitted that he didn’t take any vacations this past summer. Working with McDonough one-on-one was the first time he had a personal skating coach in 15 years.

As the training intensified and the blocks built higher and higher, Backes’ morale followed. When he completed a drill and really accomplished something, his confidence levels rose. High fives could be commonly seen from Backes to McDonough and her staff.

Even better for McDonough was when Backes reported back that a certain drill felt good and he could really feel it in his body.

“That was an important thing,” said McDonough. “I always ask my players ‘what did that feel like?’. You have to become in tune with feeling what your body is doing and David, I think he got complacent. The last few years, he wasn’t feeling what he was doing; he was just doing it. This means he wasn’t pushing himself outside of his comfort zone and working at the capacity he could.”

When he initially told the story of working with McDonough, Backes admitted that his training and investment into hockey wasn’t where it needed to be.

“I put the work in and I think I feel better on the ice than I have in a long, long time,” said Backes. “My first year probably felt a little bit like this, but I feel like I’m back to moving around, creating plays and engaged in the game. It’s no excuse for years 2 and 3 whether it was dropping off, or disengaged or whatever it was.”

As the different aspects of his skating game formed a cohesive unit working in harmony, his morale shot right up.

“That confidence came with all of that as well,” said McDonough. “He was grinning ear-to-ear many times very pleased with himself and rightfully so because he worked his butt off.”

Where Backes’ Game Is Now

One of the top observations of the Bruins preseason has been that Backes looks better. When No. 42 let this story out to reporters, he’d just scored a goal in the B’s 2-0 preseason win over the New Jersey Devils. It was an overwhelmingly positive night for Backes who’s spent camp battling for a roster spot.

Over the six weeks that McDonough and Backes worked together, the former St. Louis Blues captain improved tremendously.

“I think he’s gotten significantly better at skating all-around — his mental part and his physical part,” said McDonough. “He’s intentional with what he’s doing. An intention creates results and he’s getting that, he’s feeling it and I remind him all the time and whenever we were on the ice it’s his job every time he hits the ice to remind himself what those fundamentals are that he needs to be going through.

“If he has those every time he hits the ice, they won’t fail him.”

The biggest knock on Backes’ performance since his arrival to Boston in 2016 has been that he’s simply too slow. As the game becomes more speed- and skill-centric, players with Backes’ play-style get left in the dust. His production dipped last season when he only scored seven goals and 20 points in 70 regular season games.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the veteran watching Opening Night from the press box.

McDonough believes Backes’ game is more filled out with his work this summer. Because speed is the basis for so much in a hockey game, she believes Backes’ new focus on skating fundamentals will be the basis for better positioning, scoring chances, and effectiveness.

And oh, yeah — he can complete that pesky mohawk drill now, too.