BRUCE BERLET REPORTS – JASON LABARBERA, CLASS ON AND OFF THE ICE

BY: Bruce Berlet

I learned how classy goalie Jason LaBarbera is when he was with the Hartford Wolf Pack for four seasons and then the Manchester Monarchs, where he never complained about the waiver rules that kept him locked in the AHL because the Los Angeles Kings were afraid of losing him on re-entry waivers if they tried to recall him.

Well, LaBarbera, named the AHL’s MVP and top goalie with the Wolf Pack in 2003-04, when he was 34-9-9 with a 1.59 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and 13 shutouts in 59 games, continues to demonstrate those traits as backup to Mike Smith with the Phoenix Coyotes. LaBarbera is wearing a mask this season to honor Pat Tillman, the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals standout who enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and died in Afghanistan from friendly fire.

LaBarbera will donate $420 for every victory this season to the Pat Tillman Foundation because Tillman wore No. 42 when he was with the Cardinals. But LaBarbera hasn’t played in the Coyotes’ first two games, a 6-3 loss to San Jose and a 2-1 shootout loss to Dallas, as he and Smith try to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, who helped the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007, was claimed on waivers by the Coyotes, and signed a nine-year, $51-million, free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers on June 23. Bryzgalov has a 0.50 GAA and .977 save percentage, after beating the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins 2-1 and the New Jersey Devils 3-0 in his first two starts.

“Not many professional athletes would give up their playing careers to defend this country and fight for what they believe in,” LaBarbera told USA Today. “It was an incredible, selfless act, and I just want to honor him and help keep his memory alive by putting some images on my mask.”

The left side of LaBarbera’s mask features a large image of Tillman’s face from the now-iconic photo of him in an Army Ranger beret overlaid with images of Tillman playing football and hugging his brother, Kevin. The right side has an image of a soldier and a military aircraft, and the front, which protects his neck, has a yellow ribbon in the middle, the team’s howling Coyotes logo on one side, a paw print on the other. The backdrop of the entire helmet is covered with a red-and-white camouflage that includes stars and maple leaves, as LaBarbera is Canadian.

It’s quite a contrast from LaBarbera’s first nine pro seasons, when his previous masks featured his love for hard-rock music, with images of Metallica and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, and pro wrestling, with images of the Undertaker and Brett “The Hitman” Hart.

Tillman was a fan favorite in Arizona and became a national hero when he left behind millions of dollars and a new wife to join the Army shortly after 9/11. He was killed by friendly fire in 2007, and his life and how it ended became inspirational to people around the world.

LaBarbera never met Tillman, as he joined the Coyotes in 2009, but Tillman’s story struck the goalie because he heard so much about the defensive back living in the Valley of the Sun and has many of the same values.

“Barbs is just a classy guy, one of the best people you’ll ever meet, just is a good man,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “To be able to honor someone as iconic as Pat in the Valley and in the country shows Barbs’ class. It’s been a few years and to just bring that to the surface and remind everybody what true sacrifice is is remarkable.”

The idea of a Tillman-inspired mask began in the summer, and LaBarbera traded ideas with Toronto-based artist David Arrigo, who has painted masks for many NHL goalies.

“You come up with a theme, a kind of idea of what you want it to look like and go back and forth,” LaBarbera said. “I think it turned out well.”

And LaBarbera took the tribute a step further with the contribution to the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was started by his widow, Marie, and provides support to military service members and their families.

“The Pat Tillman Foundation thanks Jason LaBarbera for his unique tribute to Pat and his creativity in bringing awareness to the sacrifices of all military families and veterans and we’re honored that he selected the Tillman Military Scholars program as his charity of choice,” Marie Tillman said.

LaBarbera revealed the mask at practice last week, and most of his teammates took a look and asked him about it. It also has achieved LaBarbera’s goal of more attention for Tillman, as it has generated a buzz online as fans and sites everywhere praise LaBarbera’s choice and Arrigo’s design.

“As another professional athlete, there’s thousands of us around the world, and he was the only one who could do what he did,” LaBarbera said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing. I couldn’t even imagine doing that. I don’t think anybody could imagine doing that.”

And few could imagine doing what LaBarbera did, so here’s hoping Barbs goes undefeated this season and fills the Tillman till.

And LaBarbera isn’t the only goalie with a tribute mask this season and deserving of good fortune. The Detroit Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard and St. Louis Blues’ Jaroslav Halak are honoring members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia that lost most of its players and staff in a plane crash Sept. 7. Kudos to them, too.

Rangers and former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov is obviously relieved that he didn’t sign a proposal from Lokomotiv this summer. When asked if God saved him, Anisimov said, “Probably. I try not to think about it. Guys do not come back. We must pray for them. They will forever remain in our hearts. I was at the funeral. Terribly hard.”

IS RIVET ANOTHER REDDEN?

Defenseman Craig Rivet, who started last season as captain of the Buffalo Sabres, isn’t ready to hang up his skates just yet. On Monday, the 37-year-old Rivet signed with Elmira of the ECHL, which should help the Jackals on and off the ice and at the box office.

“We are very excited to sign Craig and give our fans the opportunity to watch such an accomplished and talented player skate at First Arena this season,” Jackals general manager Robbie S. Nichols said. “This is a huge signing for the Elmira Jackals.”

“Craig’s experience and leadership qualities are invaluable to any team,” Jackals coach Pat Bingham said. “His work ethic will be a great example for our young players who are looking to advance in hockey.”

Rivet could serve the Jackals as 34-year-old Wade Redden did last season with the Whale’s young defensemen, especially Ryan McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek and Jyri Niemi, after he was waived and sent to Hartford so his $6.5 million contract would not count against the Rangers’ salary cap. Bingham said the fact that Rivet made a two-hour drive from Buffalo to Elmira on Sunday night so he could be at the rink early Monday morning showed his level of commitment.

“He’s a very welcome addition, not only from a talent standpoint and what he brings on the ice, but what he brings off the ice, his leadership and character,” Bingham said. “A player so highly regarded for his leadership that he’s been a captain in the NHL. It’s not only great for the organization, for the town, but for our young players to learn from a guy who’s going to set a great example. He’s going to be a tremendous asset to me as well, teaching these young defensemen how to play the game.”

Rivet said the chance to be a mentor a la Redden is something that certainly interested him.

“The reasons these guys are here is that they’re coming from different teams, coming from Europe, they’re leaving university after four years,” Rivet said. “These guys are trying to make the next level. This is their starting point. It’s nice that I have been through it and I can help these guys in any way to try to move them along quicker. That’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

After Rivet was waived and claimed on re-entry waivers by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Rivet had two goals, two assists and was minus-12 in 37 games.

“I’ve never felt better,” Rivet said. “I’m going to need a little bit of time to get back on the ice and skate again (but) as far as the body and how I feel, I feel fantastic right now. I’ll take it slow and make sure I don’t have any problems moving forward.”

Rivet, a third-round pick of Montreal in 1992, has 50 goals and 187 assists in 16 NHL seasons with the Canadiens, San Jose Sharks, Sabres and Blue Jackets. He also has 23 points in 69 Stanley Cup games but said he doesn’t think the move down is an insult.

“It’s not the level, it’s the competition,” Rivet said. “I know that the competition here is still high, there’s a lot of hungry guys that want to move to the next level and that’s what’s exciting for me. It’s not like I’m coming down and playing against guys of (no) caliber. These guys can play hockey. It’s exciting for me to be here where I can further my career.”

The Jackals have to hope Rivet is half as classy, professional, efficient and helpful as Redden continues to be with the Whale.

BELL DEBUTS WITH WHALE IN PRACTICE; AVERY ONLY REHABS

Defenseman Brendan Bell, assigned to the Whale on Sunday after the Rangers returned from Europe, had his first practice with his new team Tuesday at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell. Bell gave the Whale eight healthy defensemen, the others being Redden, Jared Nightingale, Blake Parlett, Tomas Kundratek, Stu Bickel, Jyri Niemi and T.J. Fast, who was on a 25-game tryout contract until assigned to Greenville of the ECHL. Pavel Valentenko and Lee Baldwin remain sidelined with injuries.

The Whale still have only 12 healthy forwards, though left wing Sean Avery did finally show up at practice after not being asked to report since clearing waivers and being assigned last Wednesday. But the 31-year-old Avery didn’t skate with the team, only rehabbed an injury. Avery will not skate or be made available to the media Wednesday as he continues treatment on his shoulder.

“He’s day-to-day, and we’re not going to force anything,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said.

The Rangers had given Avery and his agent, Pat Morris, the right to negotiate with teams in Europe, but that option was quickly eliminated because Avery will earn more in the final year of his four-year, $15.5 million contract that he signed with the Dallas Stars on July 2, 2008 after leaving the Rangers for the first time as a free agent. Avery lasted only 23 games with the Stars, who placed him on re-entry waivers. The Rangers claimed him and have split his contract with the Stars since. Avery had two goals and one assist in eight games with the Wolf Pack before joining the Rangers.

The Rangers and Stars will have $1.9 million come off their salary cap, which is good for the Rangers since they could look to acquire a veteran defenseman because of the growing uncertainty of All-Star Marc Staal, who isn’t skating with them because of lingering headaches from post-concussion syndrome. It’s bad for the Stars, who likely will have to acquire a player just to reach the salary cap floor.

Meanwhile, goalie Chad Johnson wasn’t named the first AHL Player of the Week, despite 41 saves in a 1-0 shootout victory Sunday over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, last year’s regular-season champion, that tied the second most in a shutout for a Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale goalie. He matched the 41 saves by Johan Holmqvist in a 3-0 victory over Lowell on Dec. 23, 2000 and Cam Talbot in a 3-0 win over Providence last Oct. 17. The franchise record for saves in a shutout is 44 by Milan Hnilicka in a 4-0 victory over Worcester on March 25, 2000.

It also was the 25th time since shootouts returned to the AHL in 2004-05 that a game finished scoreless after 65 minutes. The Wolf Pack/Whale have played five such 1-0 games and now have won four of them. Sunday was the first 1-0 shootout game in Penguins history.

Norfolk Admirals right wing Carter Ashton was named AHL Player of the week after getting three goals and an assist in a 6-5 (overtime) and 4-3 victories over Charlotte. Ashton, 20, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was a first-round pick (29th overall) of Tampa Bay in 2009 and made his pro debut with the Admirals late in the 2009-10 season.

The Whale plays a third straight road game Friday night against their new Northeast Division rival Albany Devils, who lost their first two games. The Devils have retained two of their top three scorers – No. 1 Matt Anderson (23 goals, 32 assists in 76 games) and former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman (No. 3 with 16 goals and 28 assists in 48 games). Last season, the Devils swept the then Wolf Pack 3-2 in a shootout in Albany and 3-1 in Hartford, with both games in October.

The Whale plays their home opener Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Sound Tigers in the first of 10 GEICO Connecticut Cup games, and the first opening night under the Whale banner. The Whale was 6-3-0-1 against the Sound Tigers last season, winning 3-2 in a shootout in their first game as the Whale last Nov. 27. The Sound Tigers, who joined the Whale in the Northeast Division, have split two 4-2 decisions, losing to Portland and beating Albany, as feisty wing Justin DiBenedetto notched a hat trick and Anders Nilsson made 28 saves in his North American debut Sunday. The Sound Tigers, whose coach is former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson and whose two assistants include West Haven native and 2002 AHL MVP Eric Boguniecki, are at Adirondack on Friday night before heading to Hartford. There will be a “Whale Blue and Green” Fan Fest in the XL Center atrium before the game, in which fans can hear live music, test their shooting skills in the CT Whale Slap Shot Cage sponsored by Xfinity, frolic in a bounce house and enjoy a Wii station.  Five thousand fans will receive a free Whale magnetic schedule, sponsored by Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. Tickets for all games are on sale at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center, on-line at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMaster Charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. … Great to hear Hockey Hall of Famer Chuck Kaiton’s voice and “Brass Bonanza” on the “Catch the Wave!” commercial for the Whale’s home opener Saturday night. After nearly four decades, Chuck remains one of hockey’s most distinguished voices and knowledgeable personalities. Hopefully it inspires some fans to show up for the game against the Sound Tigers and many others.

KREIDER MAKES ANOTHER MAJOR IMPRESSION

Left wing Chris Kreider quickly showed why he’s considered the Rangers’ top prospect, when he started his junior season at top-ranked Boston College by being named the MVP at the North Dakota Ice Breaker Invitational last weekend.

Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, also earned a spot on the all-tournament team after he had two goals and one assist as the Eagles routed Michigan State 5-2 Friday and third-ranked North Dakota 6-2 in the title game Sunday. He scored in each game, and his goal Friday with 8:17 left in regulation was the winner, as he blew past a Spartans defender on the left wing, raced to the net, moved the puck to his backhand on top of the crease and slipped it past Michigan State goalie Drew Palmiscno.

“Chris Kreider has just become such a force for us,” legendary BC coach Jerry York said. “We call it a ‘run to daylight’ when runs down and cuts across. He’s hard to stop. He’s 225 pounds. He’s strong. … There are six trophies available to us this year. We got the first one. It’s kind of a stepping stone. They all get bigger as the year goes on.”

The Rangers had hoped to lure the speedy 6-foot-3, 220-pound Kreider to Madison Square Garden this season, but he’s dedicated to getting his degree and decided to play one more year at Boston College, which won the national title in 2009 with a 5-0 victory over Wisconsin, led by two current Rangers players, center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Kreider missed the end of last season with a broken jaw, which likely helped contribute to his decision to stay near his hometown of Boxford, Mass., which is where Whale rookie left wing Ryan Bourque is from. Longtime NHL defenseman Chris Chelios was at the tournament watching his two sons, Jake and Dean, play for Michigan State. Dad went to Wisconsin.

Kreider and the Eagles host Denver, now ranked third, on Friday night.

STAJCER TO STAY PUT – FOR NOW

Many thought Owen Sound would trade Scott Stajcer when he rejoined the Ontario Hockey League team, after returning from Europe as the Rangers’ extra goalie behind Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron.

Stajcer, the Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2009, was assigned to the Attack on Sunday and apparently won’t be traded for now, as 18-year-old Jordan Binnington struggled early.

“I don’t think trading him is something I’m contemplating,” Owen Sound general Dale DeGray told Bill Walker of the Owen Sound Sun Times. “I would expect that unless someone absolutely blows my doors off with an offer that he will be here for a month or two. If we’re going to move him, he’s got to show he’s a top goalie in the league.”

Stajcer was the OHL’s top goalie at the start of last season before hip surgery in November sidelined him for four months. He struggled a bit trying to regain his timing when he returned, allowing Binnington to hold the job he had earned in Stajcer’s absence while leading the Attack to their first OHL championship. Binnington beat Saginaw 6-3 Monday night, but he’s 4-3 with a 3.71 goals-against average and .882 save percentage this season.

Stajcer had plenty of work with Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire and practiced against NHL talent for three weeks, but he hasn’t played since Sept. 14, when he was a 5-2 loser to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres in the title game of the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich. If the Attack, whose owners include former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid and whose associate coach is former Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue, are going to trade Stajcer, he has to get some game time to prove himself again.

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