Photo by Steve Christy
Jason LaBarbera knows every stop on the way to the NHL and back
Rockford, Ill. – The career of a professional hockey player can be a winding road with many setbacks and hurdles to get over. Every story is unique and each player has to forge their own path. Goaltender Jason LaBarbera is no exception and has been a young prospect, an NHL starter and everywhere in between.
LaBarbera has had a chance to look back on his career as a professional. The 34-year-old netminder has come a long way since breaking into the professional ranks.
“Being 34 is weird. I remember being 20, 21, 22,” said LaBarbera. “I remember looking at veterans and thinking, ‘Wow, that guy is old. He’s got a wife and kids.’ That’s me now.”
The Burnaby, British Columbia native was drafted by the New York Rangers in the third round (#66 overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft as an 18-year-old prospect out of the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks and Spokane Chiefs. Growing up as a Vancouver Canucks fan made this a bitter sweet moment for LaBarbera.
“I hated it at the time,” joked LaBarbera of his draft experience. “I was a Canucks fan growing up and the Rangers beat the Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals a couple years earlier. But, you get drafted, especially to a team like New York, and it is a big eye-opening experience. My first training camp was Wayne Gretzky’s final year. I was an 18-year-old kid in the training room with him and I was just shocked.”
Few skaters forget their first goal and few goaltenders forget their first win. For LaBarbera, this came on Mar. 5, 2004 against the Washington Capitals. His work between the pipes, stopping 19-of-21 shots, and on the score sheet, one assist, helped LaBarbera earn the number two star of the game honors and his first NHL win.
“My second start was in Madison Square Garden, where I got my first win and assisted on the game-winning goal,” LaBarbera said. “It was Bobby Holik from Jaromir Jagr and myself, which was weird. You experience what you’ve been working toward your whole life. You don’t even realize you’ve been working toward it until that moment. You think back to all the steps you’ve taken throughout your career. It was a really great moment.”
After five years with the Rangers organization, including a First-Team AHL All-Star selection (2004), and Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award (2004), an AHL MVP (2004) and setting the record for shutouts in a season with 13 in 2004, LaBarbera found himself as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
“I still wasn’t sure about the process of being an unrestricted free agent and I had a lot of teams call me that summer wanting me to sign with their team,” said LaBarbera. “It was an interesting process, talking with all of these teams and trying to figure out what to do. Then, going from an organization that treated me really well in New York for five years and then having all of these opportunities with other teams. I signed with the Los Angeles Kings that summer and went from the east coast to the west coast.”
LaBarbera spent four years with the Kings organization before he was able to realize a childhood dream of his, playing for his favorite team growing up, the Vancouver Canucks. The Kings traded LaBarbera to the Canucks on Dec. 30, 2008.
“It was crazy for me,” LaBarbera remembered. “It jump started me. Luongo was out at the time and I played six or seven games in a row for them. I played pretty well and when Luongo came back I didn’t play as much, but just to be able to say that I played for the Canucks was a really cool experience. All my family and friends are Canucks fans and that was my team growing up. Putting on the jersey for the first time was really exciting.”
The Phoenix Coyotes were LaBarbera’s next stop as a free agent, signing with the team before the 2009-10 season to be a backup. LaBarbera spent four seasons in the NHL with the Coyotes before entering one of the most hectic seasons he has experienced as a professional.
Prior to this season, LaBarbera signed with the Edmonton Oilers before being included in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks and finding himself back in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs.
“I’ve tried to not think about it too much because if I did I might stress myself out,” joked LaBarbera. “I signed with Edmonton in the summer and thought they might be going in the right direction, but it didn’t work out for us. I didn’t know what to expect with the trade. But I was glad when I got the chance to play more. But, it’s been hard, my family is back home and I’ve been out here for three months by myself. That part wears on you, but it is fun to be around these young guys and being able to play a lot and be counted on has been good.”
LaBarbera joined his former Juniors teammate, Marian Hossa, in Chicago before coming to Rockford to take over as the starting goaltender.
“When I first went to Chicago I talked to Marian Hossa about our junior days,” said LaBarbera. “We hadn’t had a chance to talk about it with anyone because most of those guys don’t play hockey anymore.”
All players work their whole life to get to the NHL and contribute on that level. But, being a valuable contributor is just as important to many professionals and the decision can be tough between accepting a smaller role in the NHL or being the go-to-guy in the AHL.
“At this point in my career, I’d rather be the starter here in the AHL,” reasoned LaBarbera. “I’ve put in that time to be the backup. But, I don’t know what the future holds for me, I don’t know if that is something I’ll get to do again. For right now though, it is nice to be able to play, be counted on, contribute and have responsibility. When you don’t play you feel like you can get lost in the shuffle just being a practice goalie.”
LaBarbera has done just that since his arrival in Rockford, appearing in 31 of the 41 games that he’s been a member of the IceHogs. Over those 31 games, LaBarbera has 15 wins to show for his 2.90 goals against average and .903 save percentage.
The value of LaBarbera to the IceHogs goes beyond just his play on the ice, he has become a valuable mentor for the young goaltenders in Rockford. Having spent the majority of the season with LaBarbera, Kent Simpson is the most affected.
“It has been nice to work with Kent and talk to him a lot,” LaBarbera said. “I know it has been a hard year for him and I’ve gone through that. It is frustrating and I’ve just tried to talk him through it and relay my experience. I try to tell him, ‘It’ll all be ok and just keep working.’ It’s cliché, but it’s true. You can’t get down and he’s good enough that it’ll go his way eventually. It really is an emotional roller coaster, but just finding that even keel is really important.”
Looking back on your career can cause some players to second-guess themselves and some of the decisions they’ve made. LaBarbera is no exception, but he knows that type of thinking doesn’t accomplish much and he recognizes some things he might try to do differently, but that’s not the same as regretting any of those decisions.
“I wouldn’t have let my head get in the way as much as I have over the years,” said LaBarbera about doing things differently if he had the chance. “It can definitely take a toll on you mentally. Like I said, there are a lot of ups and downs. I’m a thinker; I think a lot more than I probably should. I would never look back and regret anything though. I’ve been relatively healthy and played 14 years, played years in the AHL, played in the NHL, and had success here. I don’t regret anything.”
LaBarbera is certainly living up to the billing of a veteran and consummate professional, but that doesn’t mean he is ready to hang up his mask just yet.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, but I don’t know yet,” said LaBarbera of the future. “I don’t know what the future holds. There are some big decisions on the horizon for me and my family. I still feel like I have a few years left in me. I’m at a crossroads, but it has been good and I know I’ll figure it out.”