The puck stops here; LaBarbera fixed on world junior team goalie battle

Former Prince George resident keeping his fingers crossed for a COVID-free tournament

You can’t put a price tag on experience.

Looking at Taylor Gauthier’s resume playing against his world-class peers in international hockey tournaments, that can only enhance his chances of making the cut to play for Team Canada next month in the IIHF world junior championship.

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The Prince George Cougar netminder has played at the world under-17 hockey challenge, world under-18 championship and U-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and at 19 Gauthier is the oldest of five goalies competing in Red Deer for a spot on the team.

“The one thing with Taylor is he has come through the program and he has played all the Hockey Canada events, so he has that body of experience under his belt, which is important,” said Jason LaBarbera, Canada’s world junior goalie coach.

“It’s not easy playing behind a team that struggles every night and if you look at his numbers (2.93 goals-against average, .917 save percentage, two shutouts in 50 games last season with the Cougars), those are pretty good numbers on a team that struggled and it says a lot about how he played last year.

“He looked comfortable (in 4 ½ periods of intrasquad action at the world junior camp), he didn’t look rusty. He made key saves at times in both those two games and made difficult saves in those games too.”

Now in his third year with the national team program, LaBarbera has watched a lot of video of Gauthier in action and is impressed with his progress.

“His game has evolved a lot, he’s a lot more patient and controlled on his feet, he’s a got a better feel for things,” said LaBarbera. “When he was younger he just relied on his athleticism to make saves, which is exciting, and he’d make some unreal saves. The thing about guys as they mature and progress in their careers is they have to learn to rely solely on that. You still need it and he still has that in his toolbox, but he’s also learned to just let the game come to him more and trust his positioning and those sorts of things and he’s done a pretty good job of that the last few years in P.G.”

The 40-year-old LaBarbera, a Prince George minor hockey product, played 187 NHL games for six teams over 16 seasons before he retired in 2015. He was a Portland WInterhawk for four seasons before he broke into the pros in the New York Rangers’ system and he can relate to having to take a team on his own shoulders, as Gauthier did so many times last season as the Cougars’ MVP.

“My 18- and 19-year-old years in Portland we weren’t very good and there were nights where the only chance we were going to win was if I stood on my head,” said LaBarbera. “The guys who are good and have the right approach about things will do that and the guys who don’t obviously struggle. Any time you see that out of guy it’s a pretty good thing.”

LaBarbera and Gauthier worked together in August 2018 at the Under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Red Deer/Edmonton and they also cross paths at the goalie school Gauthier attends in the off-season in Calgary.

“We have a very good relationship, we’ve been talking quite a bit and we’ve been on lockdown so it’s nice to have that guy in your corner who is open to conversation about hockey or just personal things,” said Gauthier. “He’s one of the guys I feel comfortable talking to about anything that goes on in my life and I think we’ve built on that relationship in the last week-and-a-half. He’s very easy to talk to and very personable. It’s been nice to have that mentor who has been through everything that you’re wanting to go through.”

The other four goalies are Dylan Garand (Kamloops Blazers, WHL), Brett Brochu (London Knights, OHL), Tristan Lennox (Saginaw Spirit, OHL), and Florida Panthers draft pick Devon Levi (Northeastern University). Garand, a New York Rangers’ draft pick, and Brochu, who is coached by Dale Hunter, last year’s bench boss at the world juniors, could be the toughest for Gauthier to unseat.

“Dylan is very process-driven and he came to camp prepared,” said LaBarbera. “It’s not easy being where the guys were, skating, and then showing up to world junior camp to jump right into the pool. The pace was so high and it was a struggle for guys but you could tell Dylan was practicing and doing things he was doing at a high level because right from the get-go he looked comfortable. He’s had a lot of responsibility in Kamloops the last two years and they’ve given him lots of opportunity and he’s taken the ball and run with it.

“Brochu is a smaller guy and he kind of reminds me of (Anton) Khudobin in Dallas. He plays big and he’s good at making the first save and he’s competitive and battles on pucks and that’s why coaches love him.

“Lennox is probably the most naturally athletic of the group, he’s big, strong and he can move. He played at U-17s and Hlinka so he has experience in that sense and he played a lot of games last year in Saginaw as a 17-year-old.”

The Team Canada camp was shut down a week ago Monday after a staff member and two players tested positive for COVID, prompting a two-week quarantine which will confine players and staff to their individual hotel rooms in Red Deer until Sunday. For LaBarbera and the rest of the coaching staff and team personnel, months of planning and discussion over Zoom calls that was finally unfolding at the 28-day camp came to a sudden standstill.  

“That part was hard, we were all excited because we haven’t done it for such a long time and we were right in the midst of getting going and gradually getting used the grind of the hours spent on the ice and all the other stuff you haven’t done for a while and all of sudden we got shut down,” said LaBarbera.

LaBarbera was sent back to his home in Calgary for two days as a precaution early last week because in a meeting he sat beside the team staff member who had the positive COVID test. Now he’s alone in his own hotel room, along with each of the 46 players, waiting for the quarantine to expire. He said everybody is being tested daily.

“As far as I know, everybody’s feeling good,” LaBarbera said.

“The NHL had the same issues going into the bubble. They had guys that tested positive and shut people down and they had to kind of get through that part of it to get to the bubble and once they did got in the bubble it was good. That’s what we’re trying to do here too. We’ve basically been in a bubble here in Red Deer and there’s so much about the virus we don’t know, how it gets where it gets. It’s probably not airtight probably like it would be in Edmonton, but there’s nothing you can do about it except try to keep the guys sane.”

The first round of cuts to pair the roster to 30 was to be announced Nov. 24 after the canceled third intrasquad game but the camp shutdown has delayed the process of getting down to the final 25.Canada’s first pre-tournament game is Dec. 21 against Sweden.

LaBarbera is in his fourth season with Hockey Canada. He coached at the U-17 and U-18 levesl and this is his second year with world junior team, having served on the team that won gold last time around in the Czech Republic. He’s part of a world junior team coaching staff that includes head coach Andre Tourigny (Ottawa 67s) and his assistants Tyler Dietrich (Hockey Canada), Michael Dyck (Vancouver Giants) and Quesnel native Mitch Love (Saskatoon Blades).

“I’ve been lucky bigtime to be involved in all this,” said LaBarbera, heading into fifth season as goalie coach of the Calgary Hitmen. “There’s so much to learn and the cool part is you get to learn from other people and build good connections that way. I started at U-17s with the 2001s and now a lot of those guys are 19-year-olds at world junior. You get to see their development now at the highest level of the Hockey Canada program and it’s very cool to see how they’ve matured and how their game has evolved.”




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