Jason LaBarbera has pretty much maxed out on new experiences.
The first, was being involved in an NHL trade – from the Los Angeles Kings to the Vancouver Canucks – just prior to Christmas.
The second was experiencing life in a Canadian NHL city. Amping that up is the fact Vancouver is at least as much his hometown as Prince George, since the 29-year-old goaltender was born in Burnaby, B.C.
The third new trail is his first trip to the NHL playoffs, where he’ll serve as backup to established starter Roberto Luongo.
Roll it all together and it might add up to one of the best days of his life. That was the birth of his first child, son Ryder, on Feb. 26.
LaBarbera, who played his last years of minor hockey in Prince George before advancing to the WHL with the Portland Winter Hawks, and fiancee Kodette are now the proud parents of a baby boy who checked in at eight pounds, seven ounces at Vancouver Women’s Hospital.
“It’s been amazing, and I’ve never been through this before so it’s definitely been a pretty cool experience,” said LaBarbera, who plans to go from fiance to husband in the summer of 2010. “It was kinda cool that we were able to come back to Vancouver and he was able to be born where I grew up.
“It’s the first grandson on both sides of the family, so there’s no doubt he’ll be spoiled.”
The new arrival hasn’t left LaBarbera with much time to rest when the Canucks have been at home. So it’s likely a blessing in disguise that LaBarbera, who started just one game after Feb. 13, has mostly viewed Vancouver’s late-season hot streak from the bench.
That’s exactly where LaBarbera will be as Luongo is the key figure if the Canucks are to claim the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. That begins Wednesday night at General Motors Place with the opening game of the best-of-seven series against the surging St. Louis Blues, who had the NHL’s best second-half record.
“It’s my first time in the NHL playoffs, but having it in Vancouver and a Canadian city – well, we all know what it’s like in the playoffs in Canada,” said LaBarbera, who finished the season with 28 appearances, an 8-10-6 record, and 2.78 goals-against average.
“The excitement level is cool all the way around the city and it’s fun to see people reacting to it all. The atmosphere in GM Place will be something, that’s for sure.
“We’ve proven we’re a contender the last few months, and with that comes some pressure, but it’s pressure we want. You play all season for this time of year. It’s a matter of who can stay healthy and who gets hot.”
With Luongo entrenched, LaBarbera laughed when asked if he’ll have the best seat in the house.
“I’ll have my pom-poms ready and everything,” he joked. “I want to be out there playing but I’m not stupid, Luongo is the best goalie in the league.
“It’s been different (being the backup) because I went from being the guy that everyone catered to (in L.A.), to the guy who has to cater to everyone else. The best thing for me is that we’ve been winning and coming to the rink on a winning team is a breath of fresh air. You don’t have to walk around on eggshells because you’ve lost a few games.”
LaBarbera has learned a lot from watching the man who will get consideration to start for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.
“It’s amazing how detailed he is, and how he plans for every practice,” said LaBarbera “He knows what he wants to get done, he doesn’t just show up and work.
“He’s got enough pull around here that he can get practice (planned) around what he wants, drills to help things he needs to work on or get better at.”
LaBarbera noted the irony that the Blues’ starting netminder is Chris Mason, who happens to be a bit of a hockey hero in Prince George for his work with the Cougars. With Mason as the anchor, the Cats went on a memorable playoff run in 1997 that included knocking off LaBarbera’s team, the Hawks, in a stunning first-round upset.
“Mason has been unbelievable for them,” said LaBarbera. “He’s such a quality person and team guy, and he works so hard.
“The biggest reason he’s been successful at this level is his competitiveness, and that’s something we’ve talked about in our meetings here. It’s how hard he wants to stop the puck, how hard he competes, and (Canucks shooters) have been told that it doesn’t matter if they’re looking at an empty net, he’ll battle with anything he can to keep it out of the net. He finds a way.”
The six-foot-three, 225-pound LaBarbera is completing the final season of a two-year deal he signed with the Kings and will become an unrestricted free agent. A third-round draft choice of the New York Rangers in 1998, LaBarbera twice captured the AHL’s top goalie award and was the league MVP in 2004.
He has two schools of thought regarding where his NHL future lies.
“I have no clue what will happen, but I kind of get the feeling the Canucks would like to have me back,” said LaBarbera. “Who knows what will happen?
“I’ll be an unrestricted free agent so it’s a decision for me to make if I want to stay in Vancouver and be Luongo’s backup. I wouldn’t play a lot, so I could look at going somewhere else where I might get a chance to play more.”