Hockey’s evolution in Western Pennsylvania began on outdoor rinks such as the one at Washington Park.
On that sheet of ice, Riley Barber took his first strides on ice skates. It was the first step in a journey that has taken the Washington native from a 5-year-old taking learn-to-play hockey classes in Mt. Lebanon to the captain of Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Malmo, Sweden.
The annual tournament showcases the top talent under the age of 20. Team USA won the gold medal in 2013 with Barber’s three goals and three assists playing a critical role. While the American squad was eliminated in the 2014 tournament – it ran from Dec. 26, 2013 to last Monday – before the medal round, Barber led Team USA with four goals and two assists in just five games.
After arriving back in the United States early last week, Barber had time to reflect on the accomplishments that not many his age can imagine.
“I’ve been honored to play on the national team multiple times,” Barber said. “It was the best experience of my life, especially to win the gold last year. This year was not the outcome that we wanted, but I think we played great. When you get there and you see the fans from the different countries, it’s very humbling.”
Barber, a sixth-round draft choice of the Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, is a sophomore forward at the University of Miami (Ohio) and is tied for fourth in the country in points. He has 14 goals and 18 assists in 20 games for the 13th-ranked RedHawks.
Barber’s love for hockey began at an early age. His father, Don, played 115 games in the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets. Quebec Nordiques and San Jose Sharks, scoring 25 career goals. Don Barber, who played college hockey at Bowling Green, is from British Columbia, but his wife, Stacy, was born and raised in Washington. Riley’s mother, Stacy Swiantek, was born and raised in Washington and attended Immaculate Conception High School.
Riley Barber calls his father the biggest influence on his hockey career. After seeing his son play in the world juniors two years in a row and getting his named called at the NHL Draft, Don Barber could not be more proud.
“It’s phenomenal to see him be awarded for all of the hard work he has put in,” Don Barber said. “He really deserves the strides he has made. He put the effort in and I’m happy for him. I thought it was just a fantastic accomplishment and I couldn’t have been happier for him when he was drafted.”
When it was time for Don and Stacy to settle down at the end of his playing career, Stacy won the battle. The Barbers moved to Washington, where Riley was born in 1994.
Riley Barber’s playing career began when he was just five years old. His father took him to learn-to-play hockey classes in Mt. Lebanon where it quickly became apparent that Riley inherited some skills.
The game of hockey has evolved in Pittsburgh over the past 30 years. Hockey rinks were sparse before the Penguins achieved success and that changed in 1984 when Mario Lemieux arrived. The city was a football hotbed after the historic run of the Steelers during the 1970s. Today, there are 42 rinks in the Pittsburgh area, and according to USA Hockey, Western Pennsylvania is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country for youth hockey participation.
Barber is the latest of Pittsburgh natives to come close to reaching his NHL dreams. Brandon Saad (Gibsonia), J.T. Miller (Coraopolis), Vince Trocheck (Upper St. Clair) and John Gibson (Whitehall) are NHL draft choices who rank among the top prospects in pro hockey.
When Barber was growing up in Washington, there was just one travel hockey program in the area. Now, the sport has grown exponentially and Pittsburgh natives are reaching the NHL on a regular basis. Gibson, who was the goaltender for last year’s Team USA that won the gold at the world junior tournament, was recently called up by the Anaheim Ducks. Saad won a Stanley Cup last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Miller had a stint with the New York Rangers this season and Trocheck is expected to be recalled soon by the Florida Panthers.
“It’s fantastic,” Don Barber said of hockey’s growth in the area. “I had the chance to cross paths with quite a few of those players when I was helping coach in the area. With all of those kids, you could tell, there were some really, really high-end hockey players in the area. I couldn’t be happier for those guys.”
Kids like Barber began the trend. He attended Trinity Middle School and played youth hockey for travel teams in the area until he was 10 years old. Then, the Barbers moved to a city where, at the time, training was readily available and competition was the best: Detroit.
In Detroit, Barber began training with the U.S. National Team Development Program before being drafted with the first overall pick in the United States Hockey League Future’s Draft by the Dubuque Fighting Saints. The USHL is the country’s top junior hockey league. After leading the Fighting Saints to a championship, Barber played for the U.S. under-17 team in a tournament in Sweden then enrolled at Miami.
In 2012, Barber moved one step closer to achieving his NHL dream when the Capitals chose him with the 167th pick in the draft. The selection was a bittersweet moment for the 6-0 forward, who grew up a diehard fan of the Penguins.
“I have a lot of Pens stuff I can’t wear anymore,” Barber said. “I was just happy to get my name called, but to say I would be really excited for it to be the Pens would be an understatement. Either way, it is just as special.”
After the early exit at the world juniors, Barber returned to Miami to pursue his goal of winning a national championship. According to RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi, Barber’s skillset is one of the best in college hockey.
“Riley has all the tools you look for in a big-time college hockey player and those tools can translate to the next level,” Blasi said. “That said, there is still growth potential in him and he is aware of that, which is exciting. He is willing to put in the work to become a more complete player and help our team get to where we want to go.”
As he tries to achieve his goal of reaching the NHL, Barber is looking forward to the normalcy of being back in the United States. While hockey has prevented him from spending Christmas in Washington for two years, he is looking forward to returning for the holiday next winter and is excited to see how far Western Pennsylvania’s hockey scene has grown since he began skating at Washington Park.
“It’s always awesome to see what it’s growing to be,” Barber said. “Now, there are a lot of travel teams in the area, and when I was growing up there was only one. To see them grow and play in the NHL has been awesome. Hopefully, I can do the same.”