LaBarbera returns to hockey roots
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
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.
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.