As I continue to sort through the Yannetti/Futa stuff, here’s an interview Don did this week with Jason LaBarbera, who is recovering from his surgery to repair a sports hernia. Don also attaches a video of one of LaBarbera’s best saves of the season…
His birth name is “Antonio,” but he is better known as Jason LaBarbera, and in some corners he is referred to as the beleaguered goalie of the Los Angeles Kings.
The 28-year-old goalie received the shot as the number one guy for the Kings this past season, only to have a poor training camp by his own admission, briefly losing the job to Jonathan Bernier, then reclaimed the sport and had an impressive month of October. Like the rest of the team, LaBarbera’s play fell apart from the middle part of November and in to December, a stretch that saw him go 2-9-1.
His final statistics reveal that he played in 45 games and posted a 17-23-2 record with a .910 save percentage and 3.00 goals-against.
What the stats do not reveal is that LaBarbera essentially played the entire season with a groin injury that ultimately ended his season on March 5th, when he underwent sports hernia surgery.
LaBarbera was upbeat in discussing his recovery from the injury, and discussed his season, which included battles with confidence, equipment and pesky rebounds.
He also harkens back to a time when a long-haired LaBarbera threw punches in the Western Hockey League, much to the chagrin of his grandmother.
Q&A with Jason LaBarbera
Question: I hear “sports hernia surgery” and I cringe. How are things coming along for you since the surgery?
LaBarbera: It’s gone pretty well actually. It’s been a lot better than I thought it would. Obviously I’ve never had anything like this before, so I initially didn’t know what to expect, but our strength and conditioning coaches have all been helping me to get better and stronger. The surgery went well. It’s been eight full weeks since I had the surgery. Again, I really didn’t know what to expect, but it was something I had battled with throughout the year and it was just lingering, getting worse and worse, never getting better, so we just shut it down and got it fixed. I should be ready to go for next year.
Question: You sort of already answered my next question: So this was something that happened earlier; when was the first sign that you had an issue?
LaBarbera: I felt something in training camp. It was just one of those things that kind of lingered around. For a couple of weeks I think maybe in December or January it kind of felt like it went away and I thought it was gone, so I was figuring it was just a strain or something. Then when we went on that long road trip I kind of tweaked something and it just kept getting worse and worse. At that point I just felt like I couldn’t do it any more. It was frustrating. You never want to end your season having surgery, but it is something that happened. I suppose the timing was okay because it gave me a longer time to recover, get back in shape and be ready for next season.
Question: Are you able to do much in the way of strenuous activities yet?
LaBarbera: Yeah, I can pretty much do everything. Two weeks after the surgery I was able to start my rehab, but nothing too physical or heavy. It still hurts, especially when I sneeze. They are certain things that I can’t do. I can’t do lunges or run outside yet. I started running on a treadmill about three weeks ago. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to deal with this in the middle of the season.
Question: You just need to keep your sneezing to a minimum.
LaBarbera: (Laughs) Yeah, and it’s tough out here (Calgary) because it is so dry. Seems like as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten allergies, so I sneeze a lot and you have to do it a certain way to keep it tight.
Question: How do you think the season went for you personally?
LaBarbera: I would say it was definitely up and down. There were stretches where I played really, really well and there were stretches where I felt like I was average and not at my best. That is one thing I can say about being at the NHL level and that is you have to be consistent. I’ve pretty much been consistent at every level I’ve played and now I get to the highest level and that is the most important thing. So it is important for me to be consistent because to play as much as I did, it was tough losing, very stressful. It was good for me to go through that and play through it every night and to play at the NHL level and it was a great experience, but at the same time I know how much better I can be and how much I can give to the team.
Question: You had some incredible highs, a four-game win streak in October, but also some lows, like a five-game losing streak in December. Is it safe to assume that you as a goalie are playing at a higher level when you are winning all those games?
LaBarbera: It depends. There were times when we were losing where I felt that I wasn’t playing badly. It just seemed more like the puck wasn’t bouncing our way. When you are winning those are things that are happening and going your way. When things aren’t working out right it is just so frustrating. I know there were times when I would come home after a game and realize that I didn’t play my best, but there were others where even if I didn’t play my best we as a team just didn’t find a way to win. Whether it was me letting in one bad goal or us not scoring, it is just something that you have to realize at this level, that you have to be great every night.
Question: Let’s talk about some standout games. First, there was a game in January against Toronto where you stopped 48 of 50 shots in a win.
LaBarbera: That was great. It was my first game against the Leafs, and obviously as a Canadian kid, any time you play the Leafs is a great thing. Even though they weren’t up in the standings it was pretty cool seeing those uniforms on the ice and play against them with so much history. I’d had a good meeting with Dean and Ron the day before the game and they just kind of refocused me. I had my family in town too, so that was a pretty good feeling to be able to walk away knowing that you pretty much stole a game for your team and to do it to the Toronto Maple Leafs in your own building.
Question: Then you had back-to-back games in December with 39 save performances against Calgary and the Rangers.
LaBarbera: Yeah, those were great, especially against the Rangers, since I pretty much spent my whole career in their organization. They put a lot of time and effort into developing me as a goalie, so to be able to go into New York and Madison Square Garden like we did and get a win and be the first star was very cool for me. And Calgary, too. I live there in the summer. Any time you can win games like that it is special, especially if you play well.
Question: It’s no wonder you hurt the groin. Forty eight saves, 39 saves in back-to-back situations. Were there moments with the injury that it felt like at any moment you could be making your last stop of the season?
LaBarbera: It was really just more sore before the game and then after the game. Once I got warmed up I didn’t really notice it. I really just needed to get more warmed up this year than in the past. It was a lot of preparation for the games and for practice. Once I got warmed up I was okay. I still felt it in certain situations, but it didn’t hamper me too much.
Question: One of the main knocks on your game this season was lack of rebound control. Is that a fair criticism of your game, and if so, is that something that can be corrected?
LaBarbera: Yeah, I think it was definitely something that was a concern for me and the coaching staff. It was weird for me because I really don’t feel that in years past in my career that I really had a problem controlling rebounds. Pucks just seemed to squirt away from me at times and I’d put myself in bad spots. Obviously it is something I will have to work on in the summer, but it is also a feel thing, where you have to feel comfortable and confident to not give up those rebounds. Obviously when you are struggling you are pressing a little bit, or you are over-aggressive and pucks hit you and glance off you in bad ways. It creates a lot of havoc for yourself and for your defensemen. I definitely knew it was something I have to work on. Coming up to another level you are going to get better shooters and understand the game a bit better and I think too that sometimes teams felt like they could take advantage of it and exploit it, so it is something I have to work on and get more comfortable and confident in it.
Question: So was there any single contributing factor that contributed to it, be it the injury or a positioning problem?
LaBarbera: I don’t know what it was. There were just times where I didn’t feel fully comfortable, and again I think I was just pressing too much. When your body is tight when you are pressing, pucks just bounce off you funny as opposed to when you are relaxed and soft. I also had a little bit of an issue with my chest protector. I couldn’t decide how I wanted to wear it, but eventually I got that figured out. Who knows, maybe that was part of the problem. Sometimes when you think too much about something it gets into your head and like I said you start pressing and the body tightens up. It is frustrating when that happens because you end up putting yourself in a bad spot and you don’t really help out your defense too much.
Question: How strange was it for you at the start of the season to see Bernier essentially as the number one guy ahead of you?
LaBarbera: You know what? I wasn’t really worried about it. At the time I was kind of struggling out of training camp and I wasn’t really feeling sharp and comfortable in the net and Jonathan came in and had a great training camp. He deserved everything he got. For me, I knew I was capable of doing it. I knew eventually it was going to come to me, but you just have to be patient and keep working at it. Obviously you come out of camp and you want to be the number one guy, but you have to keep working at it and get comfortable and get things settled down. I knew he was young and it was a big jump for him and he played great, so he deserved the opportunity. But I knew if I just stuck with it and be patient and kept working with it that eventually I was going to find my comfort zone and I was going to be alright.
Question: Was training camp difficult because you simply put too much pressure on yourself?
LaBarbera: I think that was part of it for sure. I knew it was a big opportunity for me and was going to be a big year for me. I wanted to come in and be good right from the start. For whatever reason I just never really got comfortable, whether I just didn’t get enough ice time during the summer or whatever reason I just didn’t seem like I could get into the groove early. Normally in my career I’ve been a pretty quick starter.
Question: Have you already started thinking about what is in store for you this coming training camp with Bernier, Ersberg and Zatkoff likely pushing you for the number one spot?
LaBarbera: For me, just having that year of experience under my belt will make me more comfortable around the team and the coaching staff. It is a big jump coming up from the American League and sometimes you kind of overwhelm yourself and question yourself. I know now that I can play at that level and play consistently at that level every night. I know they have a lot of young guys coming in, but it is exciting. I know I was up and down at times, but I know what I’m capable of, but there is no reason for me to not be coming in to camp with the mindset that I’m going to be the number one guy.
Question: What do you say to your critics who say that you are nothing more than a career back-up goalie and not number one material?
LaBarbera: That’s fine that they say it. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been a number one guy since I was five years old, so I don’t really have a back-up mindset in me. Like I said, I know when I get comfortable and I’m feeling right that I will be okay. It has taken me some time to get where I’m at and I might not always get the answers right away, but eventually I’ll figure it out and get it. There is no doubt in my mind that I can do it and be that guy. I’ve done it my whole life and there’s no reason for me not to believe it.
Question: Goalies obviously are counted on to steal some games, but the reality is that a goalie is really only as good as the defense in front of him. Did you sometimes feel alone out there last season?
LaBarbera: Um, yeah maybe at times. But then there were times when maybe the guys felt like I wasn’t doing my job as well as I should. It is all a part of being a team and understanding each other and trusting each other. As a goalie, if your team isn’t playing well you really have to bear down and focus and really don’t think about it. There were times when I really got frustrated a little too easily and the guys weren’t playing well and it affected me, and I just didn’t play it the way I needed to. It is tough. You have to be good every night and the guys are counting on you to do your job. We definitely weren’t where we wanted to be last year. We were a lot better after Christmas. We are a young team and there are a lot of bright spots for us.
Question: You see some glimmer of hope from your vantage point?
LaBarbera: Absolutely. The offensive talent we have on our team is amazing. Facing those guys in practice every day and then seeing it translate in a game is pretty special. We have a great nucleus of guys on the team and it is just a matter of coming together as a group and trusting each other. You see teams like Pittsburgh who were bad for so long, then they have a bunch of draft picks and now some clutch young guys and they stuck with them. They grew as a team. I see no reason why the L.A. Kings can’t do that.
Question: Do you find yourself watching the playoffs and critiquing the four starting goalies?
LaBarbera: The biggest thing for me has been watching Marc-Andre Fleury, because he has been under the microscope for a number of years. People always questioned if he was as good as everyone thinks. The guy is still young, but to me he has so much talent and so much potential and it is showing now. He has been a rock back there for them. Those guys have grown up together and learned to trust each other.
Question: Odd ball question number one: When was the last time you got in a hockey fight?
LaBarbera: (Laughs). When I was 17 and playing in Juniors. I played for Portland Winter Hawks and we had a huge rivalry with the Seattle Thunderbirds and I covered the puck, a guy slid into me and we wound up near the boards and there was a pile on top of me. I pulled myself out of the pile, my helmet came off, my blocker came off and I started throwing punches at the guy, who was kind of down on his knees. The linesman pulled me off, then I saw our best player getting beat up over at the blue line, so I skated over. I have a really cool picture of it at home, me skating at the blue line with my hair flowing as I go over to help our best player. So by this time the Seattle goalie skates over and he wanted to fight me. So I grabbed him and I just told him that I was so tired and I could barely breathe, but he said he wasn’t too tired and started to throw punches. I still had my glove on. I couldn’t get the darn glove off. So I kind of bent over to try and get the glove off and he threw me to the ice and he put his knee into my back and started punching the back of my head. He ended up breaking his hand. My parents, my aunt and my grandma were there to watch me and it was the first junior hockey game they saw me play in. My grandma wasn’t too happy with me.
Question: Odd ball question number two: Any movies lately?
LaBarbera: I saw “Street Kings” with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. I liked it a lot. A lot of those scenes are pretty overblown a little bit, but it seems like a lot of that stuff really happens in real life, although I’d really rather not know about it.
Question: Odd ball question number three: What is your favorite flavor Pop Tart?
LaBarbera: Pop Tart? (Laughs). Well I don’t normally eat them, but probably strawberry.
Question: Final odd ball: If Jason LaBarbera was not a hockey goalie he would be what?
LaBarbera: A chef at a big restaurant. I love to cook. I cook as much as I can. You get kind of lazy during the season, because of all the planning involved, but I love to cook. I watch the Food Network all the time and I’m always looking up recipes online to make. I really enjoy it and all of the preparation that goes in to it.
Question: What is Chef LaBarbera’s signature dish?
LaBarbera: Good question. There is a maple/honey stir fry with cashews, cilantro, chicken, onions, cumin, peppers, it is really, really good.