DAVID BACKES lined up at the face-off spot and tried to focus. He was representing the United States at September's World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, and each play mattered. So he was startled when his opponent spoke.
"Hey, whatever happened to those dogs you brought home from Sochi?"
Backes laughs remembering it. "I'm like, Listen, I'd love to tell you the whole story, but we've got to drop the puck right now."
This kind of thing happens a lot. Backes, a Bruins rightwinger, estimates that hundreds of people have told him that his story inspired them to adopt. But he was an activist well before he became one of four U.S. athletes to fly home from the 2014 Olympics with at least one Russian stray in tow. Backes couldn't keep them; he and wife Kelly, who in '13 founded a nonprofit called Athletes for Animals, which works with shelters to raise awareness, were already taking care of two rescue cats and four rescue dogs at the time. (To answer that opposing player's question, Sochi Jr. and Jake ended up with Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk's parents and Rangers center Derek Stepan, respectively.)
So David and Kelly were delighted to participate in SI and PEOPLE's Stars to the Rescue documentary, which airs on Animal Planet at 9 p.m. EST on Feb. 17. The couple both grew up with adopted pets: Kelly with a menagerie of, as she recalls, "stray dogs, cats, gerbils, birds—I think there was a pheasant or two—ducks, turtles, bunnies...." and David with a rehomed poodle. So it was never a question that they would adopt once David's career seemed settled enough. They fostered cats while living with his parents when he played for the minor league Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen, and two months after buying their first house, in St. Charles, Mo., in 2007, they brought home their first rescue pup. The family has only grown from there.
"I went to practice today," David says, "so I haven't swept the basement to see if Kelly brought home any fosters. Usually they show up when I'm on the road. She calls and says, 'We're gonna foster six kittens.' I say no, and I come home and there they are."
"He feels like he has to say no," Kelly says. "But he wants them."
Their career high is 17 animals at once, during the 2009--10 season—their own two cats and two dogs, plus a foster dog and her 12 puppies. "That was a lot of cleanup," says Kelly.
Now they have 20-month-old daughter Stella in on the action. They installed a squirrel feeder that they check, at her insistence, six times a day.
In addition to the Backeses, Stars to the Rescue features Olympic gold medalist gymnast Aly Raisman, professional equestrian Georgina Bloomberg, 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield and Ravens offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley.
Stanley, who rescued his pit bull mix a few weeks after he was drafted last June, by asking his local shelter for "the dog who's least likely to be adopted," says Lola has helped him insinuate himself into his new team. He has ordered her a STANLEY 79 jersey and likes to take her to the team's facility to run or to host playdates for his teammates' pups, and he's working on a bring-your-dog-to-practice day for next season. For Wakefield, playing with adopted Shih Tzu Toby—who joined the family this summer—offers another way to bond with his kids, whom he gets to see a lot more often now that he's retired.
As for Backes, the reward is simple. "They're so even-keeled," says Backes. "With all the ups and downs of the sports world, it's nice to come home and see how happy they are to greet you no matter what."
"With all the ups and downs of sports," says Backes, "it's nice to see how happy they are to greet you no matter what."