With some extra time on my hands in November, I went back to my old stomping grounds at Miami University and had a chance to meet Washington draft pick Riley Barber after a game against Michigan State. My son Jack (pictured with Riley) and I both chatted with Barber after the game, prior to his trip to Russia with Team USA. As of this writing, he's second in the CCHA in scoring, and a big reason the Redhawks are ranked third in the country. This week, our Ben Raby (@BenRaby31) caught up with Barber by phone for an extensive interview. As a sixth round selection, he looks like an absolute steal for the Capitals. Many subjects covered here, including growing up in Pittsburgh (!), playing at Miami under Rico Blasi and under former Washington defenseman Phil Housely for Team USA, and much more.BEN RABY: WE’LL GET TO THE SERIOUS STUFF IN JUST A MOMENT, BUT FIRST OFF JUST TO KEEP IT A LITTLE LIGHT, YOU ARE FROM PITTSBURGH ORIGINALLY, SO YOU CAN BE HONEST HERE, BUT DID YOU A GROW UP A PITTSBURGH PENGUINS FAN?
RILEY BARBER: "Oh yeah, I grew up a huge Penguins fan. It’s sad to say it now but yeah I grew up a huge Penguins fan and now things have changed."
BR: DID YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PLAYER OR TWO GROWING UP?
RB "Yeah, I loved Mario [Lemieux] back in the day and [Sidney] Crosby kind of came when I was older so kind of took Crosby as my favorite and to this day he’s still my favorite player".
BR: MAYBE ON THAT NOTE, IT’S BEST IF WE START TO TALK ABOUT YOUR SUCCESS THIS YEAR AT MIAMI UNIVERSITY. BEFORE WE GET TO THE TEAM SUCCESS, YOUR SUCCESS INDIVIDUALLY- A FIRST-YEAR PLAYER, A THREE-TIME ROOKIE OF THE WEEK IN THE CONFERENCE, A TWO-TIME CONFERENCE ROOKIE OF THE MONTH, YOU LEAD ALL ROOKIES IN SCORING IN THE COUNTRY WITH 11 GOALS AND 28 POINTS IN 26 GAMES.
THE TRANSITION TO COLLEGE HOCKEY DOES NOT GO THIS WELL FOR MOST PLAYERS, SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS SEASON INDIVIDUALLY THAT HAS WORKED SO WELL FOR YOUAND HOW MUCH FUN IS ALL OF THIS?
RB: "I’ve been extremely lucky to play with great players like [sophomore Austin] Czarnik and [senior Curtis] McKenzie at the start and it’s been quite a ride so far. I’d say that I worked real hard in the offseason and just to come in here and have the coaches’ respect and especially to play in the situations I’ve been playing in is unbelievable and I’m really glad, but I couldn’t do it without the team that I have now."
BR: DID IT SURPRISE YOU AS A FIRST-YEAR PLAYER IN TERMS OF HOW QUICKLY THE RESPECT FROM COACHES AND THE EXTRA RESONSIBILITIES CAME YOUR WAY?
RB: "You never expect to have this much success this early in your career, but I can’t say that I’m not happy it happened. It’s just been a great ride and it’s something special here with the team that we’ve got and that’s all."
BR: JUST LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS, IT DOESN’T SEEM LIKE YOU PRODUCED OFFENSIVELY AS MUCH IN PRE-DRAFT YEARS IN THE USHL.
WHAT HAS CHANGED YOU FOR PERSONALLY- MAYBE IT’S OPPORTUNITY- BUT WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR YOU PERSONALLY THAT HAS ALLOWED YOU TO EXCEL OFFENSIVELY AS YOU HAVE THIS YEAR?
RB: "Coach [Enrico Blasi] has a lot of respect for me- not that coaches in the past haven’t had respect for me- but he’s giving me a ton of opportunity on the first power play [unit], playing on the penalty kill and playing in all situations and I think that’s helped tremendously for my numbers. I
always knew that I could kill penalties and last year the coaches there didn’t really think and now he’s just giving me a ton of opportunity and I can’t thank him enough for that success."
BR: LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TEAM SUCCESS. MIAMI OF OHIO IS TOPS IN THE CCHA CONFERENCE AND THE REDHAWKS RANK 3RD IN THE COUNTRY WITH A BIG MATCHUP THIS WEEKEND AT #6 WESTERN MICHIGAN.
TALK ABOUT THE TEAM AS A WHOLE, WHERE YOU FIT IN IN THAT TEAM SUUCCESS AND HOW MUCH THAT HAS BEEN TO PLAY FOR A FIRST PLACE TEAM.
RB: "Yeah, nobody really expected us to do this well to this point of the year. But we always knew as a team and I think the coaches knew that we had a great group of guys. I’d say that we’ve been playing together and playing as a team. To be competing for first place this weekend is something really special and we’re just taking it day-by-day and working towards this weekend all this week."
BR: ASIDE FROM THE COLLEGE SUCCESS AT MIAMI OF OHIO, YOU ALSO WON A GOLD MEDAL AT THE WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIPS FOR TEAM USA.
WHAT WAS THAT LIKE TO REPRESENT TEAM USA ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE AND TO ULTIMATELY COMING OUT ON TOP IN THAT TOURNAMENT?
RB: "It was something that I’ll never forget. I don’t think it has hit me yet just how big of a deal it actually was. But I was just honored to be on that team and to be given an opportunity was unbelievable.
We had another great group of guys there, with all the guys that I used to play with [in the U.S. National Development Program] a lot of old friends so just the way it all happened and all came together at the right time was something that I won’t forget."
BR: THE HEAD COACH ON THAT TEAM WAS FORMER CAPITALS DEFENSEMAN PHIL HOUSLEY. WHAT WAS IT LIKE PLAYING FOR HIM? WHAT TYPE OF COACH WAS HE?
RB: "He was a great coach. He was always positive and I think that his positive attitude helped us as team, helped us really blossom as a team in the end. He was never negative and he was always positive even when we lost. So I think his approach to the whole tournament was a very key thing."
BR: WORLD JUNIOR TEAMS FOR THE MOST PART, ESPECIALLY THIS YEAR DURING AN NHL WORK STOPPAGE, ARE MADE UP OF GUYS SELECTED IN THE FIRST OR SECOND ROUNDS OF THE NHL DRAFT AND MAYBE A FEW DRAFT-ELIGIBLE PROSPECTS EXPECTED TO GO HIGH IN THE NEXT DRAFT…
IN YOUR CASE THOUGH, YOU COME INTO SELECTION CAMP WITH TEAM USA, YOU’RE A SIXTH-ROUND PICK, YOU’RE COMPETITING WITH AND AGAINST PROSPECTS THAT WERE TAKEN AHEAD OF YOU IN THE NHL DRAFT… DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU’VE HAD SOMETHING TO PROVE IN TERMS OF ‘HEY MAYBE I SHOULD’VE BEEN TAKEN HIGHER THAN A SIXTH-ROUND PICK?
DO YOU PLAY WITH A CHIP ON YOUR SHOULDER OR WITH THE ATTITUDE THAT YOU’VE GOT PROVE THAT YOU CAN COMPETE AND EXCEL PLAYING WITH OR AGAINST THESE TOP PROSPECTS?
RB: "Yeah, my dad was always with me throughout the draft process and I wasn’t very happy with the year that I had last year. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter where you’re drafted I think. Either way you’re going to have to show it on the ice, if you’re a first rounder or if you’re a sixth or seventh rounder it doesn’t really matter until you get out there and show what you’ve got.
So I’d say that yeah I really wanted to prove something to all of the people that passed me by in the [earlier] rounds [of the NHL Draft]. But I really just knew that getting drafted really doesn’t mean anything, it’s what you do after the draft to make your dream [a reality], which for me is to play in the NHL."
BR: CAN YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THE UNIQUENESS OF THE TOURNAMENT THIS YEAR, ESPECIALLY WITH TEAMS LIKE CANADA HAVING PLAYERS THAT MAYBE SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE NHL OR MAYBE WOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE NHL [IF NOT FOR THE WORK STOPPAGE]?
COULD YOU SENSE THAT THE CALIBRE OF PLAY AT THE WORLD JUNIORS THIS YEAR WAS EVEN ABOVE WHAT IT PROBABLY NORMNALLY IS?
RB: "Yeah. It was something really special because in other years you always have that [built-in] excuse, ‘well Canada didn’t have their best [players] or we didn’t have our best. ’ I think that this year kind of had that feeling of everything is on the line and this is the best from every country so we just kind of took it from there. It was something special; especially the hype that went on with the tournament was something that I’ve never experienced before and like I said before, something that I’ll definitely never forget".
BR: WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT LINEMATES AT THE WORLD JUNIORS? YOU PLAYED MOST OF THE TOURNAMENT WITH A GUY YOU KNOW PRETTY WELL IN [FELLOW MIAMI REDHAWK] SEAN KURALY AND ALSO ALEX GALCHENYUK WHO NOW HAS A FULL TIME GIG IN THE NHL WITH THE MONTREAL CANADIENS:
RB: "Yeah, that’s pretty nuts. I didn’t really know that he was playing with the Canadiens until I was watching a game on the NHL Network and then I see his name on the back on the jersey and I was like ‘is that Galchenyuk?!’ So I look at the roster and I’m like ‘man I can’t believe I got to play with that kid for a week or two [at the World Juniors]’ and to see the success that he’s having now is awesome.
Playing with Sean- it was awesome coming back [home] knowing that you got to play and win a gold medal with one of your brothers and we’ll always have that bond I think for the rest of our lives so that’s really special."
BR: NOT TO GET TOO OFF-TOPIC, BUT GALCHENYUK ISN’T JUST UP IN THE NHL ON A TRY-OUT, HE’S GOT THE FULLTIME GIG NOW IN MONTREAL… HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE HIS GAME?
RB: "I think his game is pure skill. He’s one of the best in the world, just the way he handles the puck and the way he sees the game. To be honest, not a lot of people that I’ve ever played with or seen play have the talent level that he has. It’s awesome to see the success that he’s having at the NHL level and I guess you can say that I’m pretty honored to have played with him."
BR: ANOTHER ONE OF YOUR TEAMMATES FROM THE WORLD JUNIORS IS A PROJECTED TOP-2 PICK IN NEXT SUMMER’S DRAFT IN SETH JONES… HE HAS A CONNECTION TO D.C., HIS FATHER POPEYE JONES PLAYED IN THE NBA AND SPENT SOME TIME WITH THE WASHINGTON WIZARDS
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SETH JONES?
RB: "He’s definitely a player. He’s big and strong, he’s got a shot, he’s got hands and he’s the all-around hockey player if you can make one from scratch. I think the way he played at [the 2013 World Juniors] really showed that he’s the real deal. He has a lot of confidence and I know from being on the under-18 [national] team last year that he’s a great kid off the ice too. So he definitely has the all-around package and I can’t wait to see him get drafted this summer."
BR: WE TALK ABOUT SETH JONES’ FATHER BEING A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE, YOUR DAD HAD PRO HOCK EXPERIENCE AS WELL AND PLAYED IN THE NHL… HOW IMPORTANT HAS HE BEEN IN YOUR DEVELOPMENT AND WHAT TYPE OF ADVICE, IF ANY, HAS HE GIVEN YOU ALONG THE WAY?
RB: "He’s been probably my biggest influence- him and my mom. He’s just been there for me, [teaching] me about mistakes that he made, he’s the first one to tell me if I’ve had a bad game or the first one to tell him if I’ve had a good game so just having him around to teach me the game and to teach me the right way to play is [beneficial].
It’s awesome to have him around and he’ll never miss a game. He’s down here all the time, every weekend it feels like he’s down in Miami, so it’s pretty awesome to have a father like that."
BR: HOW DOES IT WORK WITH THE CAPITALS IN TERMS OF KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH YOU THROUGHOUT THE YEAR? HOW IS THAT RELATIONSHIP DURING THE COURSE OF YOUR SEASON?
RB: "[Capitals Director of Player Development Steve Richmond] emails me every week with a questionnaire. He’s come down to a couple of my games and I talk to him afterwards sometimes. It’s just a questionnaire that we fill out and it’s always great to see him. So that’s basically it- I do a questionnaire every week and list three things that I’ve done well and stuff like that."
BR: WHAT ADVICE HAVE THE CAPITALS GIVEN YOU AS YOU CONTINUE IN YOUR DEVELOPMENT?
RB: "He just gave me advice [this week] to keep playing and to play hard. Overall, they end up watching a lot of my games so it’s just a matter of working hard, staying positive and playing your best."
BR: AND FINALLY, OBVIOUSLY TEAM SUCCESS IS THE ULTIMATE GOAL, BUT WE STARTED THE CONVERSATION BY REFERENCING WHERE YOU RANK NATIONALLY AMONG FRESHMEN…
IS THAT SOMETHING THAT YOU CAN TAKE PRIDE IN? IS THAT SOMETHING THAT WITHOUT LOOKING TOO FAR AHEAD WOULD BE A NICE LITTLE FEATHER IN YOUR CAP IF NATIONALLY SOME OF YOUR FIRST-YEAR ACCOMPLISHMENTS ARE RECOGNIZED AT THE END OF THE YEAR?
RB: "Yeah, I think it would be great for me to do that but obviously you’d rather have team success over individual. But yeah, that would be great. I’m not really looking forward to that right now, I’m just looking forward to next weekend and helping my team out any way I can. But yeah, that would definitely be a nice little touch if that could happen."