Photo Courtesy Jeff Gross/Getty Images North America
By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
If it all seemed like a dream to Jason LaBarbera at the time, the words of his new head coach served as the proverbial "pinch."
"Kid, get in there."
Originally picked in the third round of the National Hockey League draft by the New York Rangers in 1998, LaBarbera finished his junior career and was ready to make the jump to the big time. Slated to start the season with their then-ECHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, the 20-year-old instead found himself wearing a Rangers sweater in Mellon Arena on October 14, 2000.
With legendary New York netminder Mike Richter sidelined due to injury, the native of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada was summoned to the NHL ahead of other Rangers farmhands Johan Holmqvist and Vitali Yeremeyev to backup his childhood hero, Kirk McLean.
"Kirk was the guy that I always kind of watched growing up, he was kind of my idol I guess you could say," LaBarbera said.
"I grew up in BC and he played for the Canucks, so for me it was pretty cool to be able to back a guy up that you’d watched your whole life."
Little did LaBarbera know he’d be doing a lot more than opening and closing the door of the bench that night.
"Unfortunately, (McLean) had a tough game and I got thrown into (the game) in the last 10 minutes," LaBarbera said. "Ron Low was the coach, and I could hear him yell, ‘Kid, kid, get in there.’ And I didn’t know what the heck to do. I didn’t really have a whole lot of time to think about it. My first pro anything was that game, I hadn’t even played in the American League or the ECHL yet, so it was a pretty cool experience."
With his impromptu introduction to the pro game behind him, LaBarbera eventually made it to Charlotte. With a few trips to AHL Hartford mixed in for good measure, it’s safe to say that the now 31-year-old netminder recalls his first pro season as his most hectic.
"First year pro, and you play on three different teams in one organization in three different cities," said LaBarbera in a recent chat with ECHL.com.
"It was weird, because you didn’t really know where you stood. But it was a good experience for me to play in the ECHL, I got to play quite a bit. When you’re 20, you’re pretty wet behind the ears, and it gives you a good way to kind of slowly break into playing pro hockey. Going from junior to pro hockey, it’s a big difference. I was lucky to kind of get brought in a little bit slowly that way instead of getting rushed into things in the American League and maybe getting thrown into the fire."
LaBarbera would ultimately play in 35 games with the Checkers that season, posting a 18-10-7 mark with a 3.20 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
He would get another chance the following season, and improved his numbers before eventually leaving the ECHL for good. In 13 games with Charlotte during the 2001-02 season, LaBarbera went 9-3-1 with a 2.34 GAA and .924 save pct. before ultimately sticking with the Wolfpack.
But it was in Charlotte where LaBarbera says he was able to make a smooth transition from the junior level to the pros.
"I was lucky because I played with a good group of guys in Charlotte, the coach there was good and they made it a lot easier for me to transition," he said.
"I just felt a little bit more comfortable, it was a little bit slower down there for me. The American League at the time was a lot of older guys, so you didn’t really know where you fit in, because in the ECHL, there were a lot of younger guys and it was a little bit slower. I felt a little bit more comfortable at the time in the ECHL. But it was a good experience for me, and I learned a lot down there."
LaBarbera would play primarily at the AHL level for the Rangers through the 2004-05 season, a tenure that culminated with being named the league’s MVP and top goaltender in 2003-04. But despite a stellar campaign that saw him post career highs in goals against average (1.59) and save percentage (.936), he would only get just four more games at the NHL level with the Blueshirts.
With New York’s goaltending depth increasing and a change of scenery in order, LaBarbera signed with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent prior to the start of the 2005-06 season. Without the opportunity he earned there, he might not still be in the NHL today.
"That was huge," LaBarbera said.
"I put in a lot of years with the Rangers organization, and they treated me great, I could never say a bad thing about them. Obviously, you’d like to get an opportunity there at some point, but I knew they had young guys coming in and (Henrik) Lundqvist was coming over and they had all this uncertainty about what they were going to do. So for me, it was tough to leave there, because they treated me well and I had a lot of great memories playing in that organization, but it was an opportunity for me to go somewhere else and get a chance to play. I got to play in LA for three and a half years, and that worked out pretty good."
Dealt by the Kings to his hometown Canucks midway through the 2008-09 season, LaBarbera signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes prior to the start of the 2009-10 season, and has served as Ilya Bryzgalov’s backup ever since.
One of the more underrated number two netminders in the league, LaBarbera posted NHL-career bests in goals against average (2.13) and save percentage (.928) while getting into 17 games last season.