Ask a Pro: Jason LaBarbera on winning the mental battle
This week’s Ask A Pro was originally scheduled with Phoenix No.1 Ilya Bryzgalov. Unfortunately, with the Coyotes arriving late for the second half of back-to-back games, and Bryzgalov coming off a busy 35-save win the night before, the team was given the morning off and their star goalie got the night off as well. Completely, meaning he wasn’t around to talk afterwards.
It’s more than understandable given Bryzgalov had started 10 straight – and 29 of the previous 30 – under the every-game pressure of a ridiculously tight Western Conference playoff race. Even in pre-game warm ups, he barely went in the net to take shots.
Fortunately his playing partner, Jason LaBarbera, is an old friend of InGoal Magazine and one of the league’s better guys. So after shaking off an incredible amount of rust with an impressive 46-save win over the NHL-leading Vancouver Canucks that employed him as a back up two seasons earlier, a tired, sweat-soaked – but visibly elated – LaBarbera took 10 minutes to sit down and chat. (As for Bryzgalov, we’ll follow up with the quirky Russian by email and make it an Ask a Pro for the summer months)
LaBarbera on lace bite
InGoal Magazine subscriber Brandon Reinkensmeyer asked about the dreaded lace bite, and while his question was directed to Bryzgalov, who wears the same kind of skates as him, LaBarbera has some experience with it.
In fact, it sounds like most NHL players do.
LaBarbera: “If you look at most players feet they are pretty miserable looking, just becasue their skates ruin their feet. I had lace bite in the summer and it sucked. Usually most guys throw in Bunga Pads, those little spongy, gel pads, or cut out little donuts you can put in there. But it feels different to me, it feels weird.
“I didn’t like it but I had to wear it and it sucked. My skates were loose and my ankles felt undone. The only thing I think you can do is ice it and just not put your skate on, but unfortunately that’s not an option, so try the padding.”
Mostly LaBarbera answered our questions about the incredible mental challenge he had just overcome by getting past an eight-goal meltdown in his only other start the previous two months, in large part because most of the subscriber submitted questions were so specific to Bryzgalov.
LaBarbera did, however, address one of them (see sidebar on right), and the conversation about his mental hurdles in the three weeks since that last start was of value to any goaltender that has ever struggled to turn off the voices inside their head and just start playing again.
LaBarbera started by talking about having to sit on an eight-goal outing in Tampa Bay on Feb. 23 for three weeks:
“I just wanted to contribute something. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do that lately, so for the guys, we’ve been playing well and I’ve been watching. Especially after the last outing I had in Tampa. I was awful.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me, just trying to stay positive when you have to sit on an eight-goal game like that for three weeks. It’s not easy. It was tough, I’m not going to lie to you. The last three weeks in practice I’ve had a tough go. I haven’t felt great in practice and for whatever reason the last couple of days it just started to click in and you get that carrot kind of dangled in front of you to play a game, I mean you have nothing really to get excited about just practicing all the time. it can wear on you.
But I just had to refocus and reset myself a little bit and just go out and play.”
LaBarbera had an idea he might get to play Friday night, depending on the outcome in Edmonton the night before, and then got the confirmation from head coach Dave Tippet after Bryzgalov single-hadidly beat the Oilers in a game the Coyotes won 3-1 despite being outshot 36-17. The shots ended up 47-29 the next night, but LaBarbera still managed to post another 3-1 victory.
“After the game Tip told me I was going, but I practiced (before the Edmonton game) and then had all night and all day just focussing and really trying to wrap my head around it. I tried not to focus on what the other team was going to do, I was more worried about myself. It’s just one of those things where the last thing you want to do is try to worry about everyone else and just focus on yourself and for me that’s what I really have to do.”
InGoal: How important was it to show your teammates and coaches they could play you again, and give Bryzgalov some more time off heading down the stretch and into the playoffs?
“I felt a lot of pressure for sure. Obviously you put a lot on yourself, you expect a lot out of yourself, and coming off that last game, just to give the guys that feeling that I can go out there and play well, and give the coaches the feeling I can go out there and play well. That makes a huge, huge difference, not only for me in my head, but when you have to sit on an eight-goal game like that for a few weeks, it’s not easy and you want to battle and battle but you know you’re not going to get back in there.”
InGoal: What did you focus on with goalie coach Sean Burke to find that confidence again in practice?
“On this (four-game road) trip we just kind of backed off a little, actually, and let me do my own thing. It was good. When you are kind of going through a tough time like that you really just have to go back to – this will sound funny – but your Happy Gilmour, your happy thoughts.
Just thinking about good things and listening to good music and just kind of reminding yourself that you are good. Because that’s hard when you have to wait that long to get back in there.”
Editor’s Note: Curious what that music is? His masks all have a music theme, but for a real surprise check out the end of this interview we did with LaBarbera a few years ago.
InGoal: Do you actually have to just try and stop thinking?
“You can analyze your game too much for sure. The last couple of weeks I’ve been asking guys if they have a button to turn my brain off, especially when you are practicing so much. It gets to be monotonous, the same thing over and over. And that’s my job and I get that and I absolutely enjoy it, but it can be monotonous and you feel like a piece of meat sometimes and it’s hard when you don’t have that carrot dangling in front of you just knowing you have a game.”