Riley Barber, plucked out of the sixth round back in 2012, has become one of the Washington Capitals’ most coveted, yet rarely seen prospects.
On Friday, Barber realized a dream he once openly doubted, making his NHL debut against the Edmonton Oilers.
Barber was something of a prodigy as the son of a former NHL player, himself a sixth round pick, and a figure skating coach. His mother Stacey almost always brought him to the rink. He was skating before he could fully walk.
When Barber took first steps onto NHL ice, it was his mother’s early lessons that won out.
“The first couple shifts I was definitely skating faster than I ever have in my life,” Barber said after Washington’s 2-1 over the Oilers, the team that drafted his dad, Don. A right wing like his father, Barber played with veteran center Lars Eller and fellow rookie Zach Sanford, someone Barber has paired well on the ice in with the AHL’s Hershey Bears and in a home down on the farm. At first, Barber was overwhelmed as his parents watched together from the stands with his father sporting a Capitals hat.
“I’m telling them, ‘what do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?'” Barber recalled yelling at his linemates, before praising them for helping him adjust to an NHL game that was played at a faster than usual pace.
For a while, the NHL was not a realistic career choice for Barber. Sixth round picks rarely make it or last long, so Barber turned into a typical college kid, focused on getting a degree and a steady job rather than an NHL sweater.
“I didn’t really know,” Barber said when asked if he thought he could be a professional hockey player when he started at Ohio’s Miami University.
In three years in college, the Pittsburgh native — that’s code for Penguins fan when you’re trying to be polite — scored 54 goals. But it was the international stage that made Barber realize what was going on. In his first year at Miami, he was selected for the 2012 Under-18 World Junior Championships — and scored a goal. He was not an ordinary kid anyone.
“That’s when I kinda knew, when I made that World Juniors team my freshman year that I had a chance,” Barber said of his NHL prospects.
The next year, he was selected 2013 United Stated World Junior team that won gold before being named captain of the 2014 squad. A few months after that, Barber signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Caps.
In his first season with the Bears, Barber scored 26 goals in 74 games. This year, he has missed most of the season with a right hand injury, but scored three goals in his first five goals once returning to the lineup in Pennsylvania.
But he knew he would have to wait, possibly forever, for a shot in red, white, blue. But after a rash of injuries, Barber was called up to the Capitals on Thursday.
“With this organization, everybody knows that great players that are in here,” Barber said of the uncertainty. “I think it makes it sweeter, eh?”
Now, he’ll get another sweater when the Capitals play in Nashville Saturday night.
“He came in and we thought he’d be an extra part and then all of sudden he’s in the fray,” Caps head coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a gamer. There are guys that maybe might not show the best in practice day-in-and-day-out, but when you drop a puck and there’s 17,000 fans he seems to be that big game type of guy. He was at college, he was with the U.S. Junior team. He seems to have that knack.”
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