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Behind the mask with Jason LaBarbera

by Sean McKeon || AHL On The Beat Archive

Do you ever wonder why goalies become goalies? Were they the only kid on the team who had enough courage to strap on the pads? Could they not skate when they were younger but still wanted to play? Could it be that they are just plain crazy? Or did they simply just like that position on the ice the best?

In talking with Manchester Monarchs goaltender Jason LaBarbera, I discovered things that gave me a more distinct picture as to why he chose the position and what this guy is all about.

LaBarbera, a.k.a. “Barbs”, is a native of Burnaby, B.C., which is roughly 20 minutes outside of Vancouver, 20 hours from Los Angeles and 48 hours from Manchester. He grew up rooting for the Vancouver Canucks, while his least favorite team was the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, he loved the Canadiens like a Red Sox fan loves the Yankees.

While growing up with his two brothers, Matt and Adam, LaBarbera looked up to his parents, Tony and Debbie, for support and guidance. When LaBarbera was five years old, he strapped on the pads for the first time.

Hockey seems to be the Canadian way of life, but Jason is a first-generation hockey player and he became a goalie right from the get go.

“They (the coaches) asked who wanted to be a goalie and I put my hand up right away,” LaBarbera explained, adding that he started in hockey because “everybody played it when I was younger. I was a pretty competitive kid and I guess I just liked to go out and compete against other people.”

According to LaBarbera, his favorite childhood memory was playing street hockey every day after school. As a young boy, he grew up idolizing not another goaltender but Wayne Gretzky.

His work ethic does seem quite similar to the Great One’s. They are both extremely competitive, both show up ready to play when called upon to do so and both know how to smile and share a laugh with everyone else around them. Those elements help create a successful athlete, at any playing level.

Goaltending is not an easy job as you face pucks flying at you at 90 miles per hour on a daily basis. Not only is it physically demanding, but mentally draining as well. LaBarbera has two very important pieces of advice to pass on to prospective netminders: “It is important to remain mentally tough and no matter what, never blame your teammates for anything,” explained LaBarbera.

Hockey analysts like to compare players to each other especially in the netminder position where comparisons come in their styles: butterfly or standup. It took a few moments for LaBarbera to answer who he compares his style of goaltending to, but he eventually came up with a somewhat familiar name.

Sean Burke – four years ago,” was LaBarbera’s final answer. Coincidentally, Burke is currently with the Monarchs’ parent club, the Los Angeles Kings.

Goaltenders are considered the last line of defense. In the case of penalty shots, the netminder is the only line of defense. To LaBarbera’s knowledge, he has never let in a penalty shot goal. In a breakaway situation, LaBarbera was quick to quip which Monarchs/Kings player he would not like to see in the opponent’s uniform racing down the ice toward him – Patrick O’Sullivan.

LaBarbera was selected by the New York Rangers in the third round (66th overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. He played five seasons in the Rangers organization before he was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on August 2, 2005. This season, LaBarbera has started in all but seven games for the Monarchs, who are currently sitting atop the Atlantic Division.

LaBarbera (Canadian All-Stars) was chosen to go to Toronto two weeks ago with teammates Peter Harrold (PlanetUSA All-Stars) and T.J. Kemp (Canadian All-Stars) for the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic. In the All-Star Game, LaBarbera made 12 saves on 14 shots in the 7-6 loss to Harrold and the rest of the PlanetUSA All-Stars.

On Feb. 1, 2007, the AHL announced that LaBarbera had been named the Rbk X-Pulse/AHL Goaltender of the Month for January. He appeared in 10 games last month, posting a stellar 8-2-0 record with a 1.88 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage. January was highlighted with a franchise-high 59 saves down in Hartford in a 3-2 overtime win against the Wolf Pack.

LaBarbera has a record of 29-14-1 and currently ranks first in the American Hockey League in wins (29), minutes played (2,663), saves (1,369), shots faced (1,465), save-percentage (.934) and shutouts (six). He is ranked third with a goals-against average of 2.22 while appearing in 45 games for Manchester this season.

In 230 career AHL games, LaBarbera is 121-69-20 with 27 shutouts, which ties him for sixth on the AHL’s career shutouts list.

“He’s the franchise right now,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “As LaBarbera goes, we go. I think that he has afforded a lot of our players the opportunity to get their bearings and to gain confidence night in and night out.”