Yale made it back to the big time last season in claiming both the ECAC Hockey and Ivy League crowns, and one of the linchpins on that squad was forward Sean Backman.
Backman paced all Yale goal scorers with 20 goals in 32 games in 2008-09, including six multiple-goal efforts. His finest outing was his hat trick in the ECAC championship game against Cornell at the Times Union Center last March. That 5-0 win propelled the Bulldogs to their first-ever ECAC playoff title, and first NCAA tournament berth since 1998.
“Playing in the final in Albany was great,” recalled Backman, who also garnered tournament MVP honors. “We were excited to get the first title in school history, and to get a hat trick in that game was very special for me.”
Entering the 2009-10 campaign, Backman had averaged nearly a point per game in his collegiate career, tallying 56 goals and 35 assists for 91 points in 93 outings. Included in those totals were 20 power-play goals, eight game-winning tallies, and three shorthanded markers.
Yale coach Keith Allain, however, said some of the most important things that Backman brings to the Bulldogs besides scoring ability are energy and passion.
“He competes harder than anyone in practice, and that raises the level of the rest of our group,” said Allain.
A 5-foor-8, 165-pound native of Cos Cob, Conn., Backman came to New Haven after first starring in prep school at Avon Old Farms, where he earned three letters and won two New England championships. He then skated with Green Bay (USHL) in 2005-06, where he led the Gamblers in scoring with 29 goals and 57 points in his lone junior campaign and was grateful for the experience.
“It was one of the best years I’ve had playing hockey, and it was a good move,” he said. “Going from prep school to Yale would have been harder, and this was a smoother transition for me.”
College for him was also a case of coming home.
“I grew up watching Yale play,” said Backman. “Hockey also isn’t going to last forever, and I’ll have an Ivy League education to fall back on.”
As a freshman, Backman led Yale in scoring with 18 goals and 31 points, while earning a host of awards that included ECAC co-rookie of the year and Ivy League rookie of the year as the Bulldogs finished 11-17-3. Yale then improved to 16-14-4 the next winter, as Backman again paced the Blue and White with 18 goals and 27 points.
Last year proved to be another breakout season for both the Bulldogs, who won 24 games in all, and Backman, who finished third on the squad in scoring with 20 goals and 33 points. He earned both second-team All-ECAC and first-team All-Ivy accolades, and was also a nominee for the Walter Brown Award as the top American-born player in the New England Division I college ranks (he’s a nominee again this season).
“I try to pride myself on my speed and my shot,” said Backman. “I’m not the biggest guy, so I have to excel in other areas. The team looks to me for offense, and I try to pride myself in those areas.”
“He’s a shoot-first kind of guy,” added Allain, “and he has a great shot.”
Besides the improved year-by-year record, Backman has also seen an overall attitude change in the Yale locker room as his career has progressed.
“My freshman year, if we lost a game, it was no big deal,” he said. “Now we’ve reached a level of success, and our level of expectation is higher.”
Backman started off his senior season with five goals in his first six games, including a two-goal effort in a 3-3 tie at Union on Nov. 7 where he notched the tying marker with just seven seconds left in regulation. He then posted three assists against Sacred Heart on Nov. 24, and scored twice in a 7-4 win over then-fourth-ranked Quinnipiac on Dec. 4 as the Bulldogs closed out 2009 with a 7-3-2 mark.
He rang in the new year with two goals in a 6-1 win over Ferris State on Jan. 2 at the Badger Hockey Showdown to reach 10 goals, and he has added three since for a 13-9–22 scoring line in 21 outings.
“There’s no question we look to him for offensive production, but he brings so much more with his approach and passion,” said Allain. “As a coach, he epitomizes the way I want my teams to play.”
A political science major, Backman hopes to parlay his on-ice experience into a professional playing career. He would then like to one day move into a player personnel or hockey management position after he hangs up his skates.
“I want to play this season out and see what offers come my way,” he said. “I’d [eventually] like to get involved in the NHL and work for a pro hockey team.”
In the meantime, he’s savoring his last go-around in both the ECAC and the Ivy League.
“Every time we’re away, I cherish it,” he said. “You don’t know if you’ll be back there to play, but I try not to think about it too much. You concentrate on the task at hand, but it does feel like it went by faster than anticipated.”
Backman hasn’t been drafted, but he still has a personal connection to the pros. His father, Michael, played eight years professionally, including parts of three NHL seasons with the New York Rangers.
“I grew up playing for my dad, who coached me all the way to high school,” said Backman. “We talk after every game, and he gives me little pointers and still helps me now, even playing with Yale.”
The challenge for the Bulldogs is to improve on last season’s success, including an all-too-short stay in the national tournament — Yale was ousted in the opening round of the East Regional.
“Ever since we were beaten by Vermont, it’s left a sour taste,” said Backman. “We want to get to the ultimate prize at the end, and hopefully we can get there.”