LaBar­bera re­turns to hockey roots

The Prince George Citizen - - SPORTS - Ted CLARKE Cit­i­zen staff tclarke@pgc­i­t­i­zen.ca

See­ing fall colours back home in Prince Ge­orge seemed a bit strange to Ja­son LaBar­bera. Hockey sea­son is in full swing and he hadn’t been around the city this time of year since he was 15 years old. Now 37, in his sec­ond sea­son as the goal­tend­ing coach of the Cal­gary Hit­men, it’s only been about a year since LaBar­bera made re­tire­ment of­fi­cial, end­ing a long pro play­ing ca­reer stop­ping pucks that be­gan when he grad­u­ated the WHL ranks in 2000.

“It’s been fun to come full-cir­cle and have a lot of that stuff that hap­pened to me in ju­nior that I get to re­late to these guys – it just kind of rein­vig­o­rates you a bit,” said LaBar­bera, af­ter his Hit­men lost 7-1 Tues­day night to the Prince Ge­orge Cougars at CN Cen­tre.

“It’s ob­vi­ously a lot dif­fer­ent from pro, lots of learn­ing. They’re young guys try­ing to fig­ure their way. I’ve been through a lot of stuff so you try re­lay your ex­pe­ri­ences on, not only to the goalies but to the play­ers too.

“A game like (Tues­day) is tough, it’s emo­tional, but you’ve got to find ways to get through it. I had a few games like that in this build­ing. When I played for Port­land I al­ways got lit up here. I re­mem­ber I gave up 16 goals in two games here.”

Drafted in 1998 in the third round by the New York Rangers, the year he won a Me­mo­rial Cup with the Port­land Win­ter­hawks, LaBar­bera also played WHL hockey for Tri-City and Spokane. He has be­come a full­time coach this sea­son, over­see­ing Hit­men goalies Nick Sch­nei­der, a 20-year-old for­mer Medicine Hat Tiger signed by the Cal­gary Flames, and WHL rookie Matthew Ar­mitage. LaBar­bera also teaches penalty-killing strate­gies and pre-scouts Hit­men op­po­nents. He trav­els with the team and was be­hind the bench Tues­day as the Hit­men kicked off a three-game road trip.

Sch­nei­der started Tues­day’s game and af­ter a score­less first pe­riod was yanked af­ter he al­lowed four goals on 18 shots. Ar­mitage played the third pe­riod and gave up three goals while the Hit­men were out­shot 16-2.

“You have to talk guys off the ledge a lot of the time,” said LaBar­bera.

“When I played I watched a lot of hockey on the bench and got to see a lot of things and I learned a lot. When you’re play­ing you’ve got the blin­ders on and you’re just fo­cused on your­self so it’s been nice to take them off. You can play all you want, but it’s a lot dif­fer­ent on the other side.”

LaBar­bera played for six NHL teams (New York Rangers, Los An­ge­les, Van­cou­ver, Ed­mon­ton and Ana­heim), as well as six AHL teams and one ECHL club. He earned a stint as the backup goalie for the Chicago Black­hawks af­ter be­ing traded from Ed­mon­ton and was on the bench in the 2014 West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal when the Kings beat the Black­hawks in a seven-game se­ries and went on to win the Stan­ley Cup.

“I didn’t win a Cup but it was close a few times and it’s been a pretty good jour­ney,” he said. “There were times when it was hard and you weren’t play­ing much and you ques­tion whether you be­long there and you al­ways had to kind of re­mind your­self that you’re one of 60 (NHL goalies) and that’s pretty cool. It worked out al­right.”

LaBar­bera and his wife Kodette have two boys, eight-year-old Ry­der and six-year-old Eas­ton, and have been based in Cal­gary ever since they be­came par­ents. Born in 2009, Ry­der has autism and he re­sponds well to rou­tines and sched­ules. The LaBar­beras de­cided it would be best for his de­vel­op­ment if he did not have to change ad­dresses, a pat­tern that fol­lowed his dad through­out his pro ca­reer.

Kodette and LaBar­bera met in Cal­gary in 2006 and were fea­tured for two years on the W Net­work TV se­ries, Hockey Wives, which ended in the spring of 2016 when he re­tired af­ter play­ing 23 games for the Le­high Val­ley Phan­toms, the top farm team of the Philadel­phia Fly­ers.

“It was a good ex­pe­ri­ence – I think we had a good story to tell, it was cer­tainly odd and dif­fer­ent at times,” LaBar­bera said.

“Kodette has done a lot of work (to pro­mote autism aware­ness) and I think we reached a lot of peo­ple.”

— see PLAY­OFF UPSET, page 10

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY JAMES DOYLE

Ja­son LaBar­bera, goal­tend­ing coach with the Cal­gary Hit­men, was be­hind the bench Tues­day night at CN Cen­tre when the Hit­men took on the Prince Ge­orge Cougars.

CP FILE PHOTO

Ja­son LaBar­bera re­ceives con­grat­u­la­tions from team cap­tain Rob Blake while both were mem­bers of the Los An­ge­les Kings on Jan. 15, 2008. LaBar­bera had just made 32 saves in a 3-1 road win against the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers.

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