The NHL call-up who uplifted the Humboldt Broncos after tragedy
Barney was 17 years old and an Ontario Hockey League rookie at the time. The next two decades of his playing career provided more tests and twists in the road. He learned how to adapt to the unforeseen. A debilitating back injury sidelined Barney for three seasons coming out of junior, but when a solution took, he recovered to skate in 27 NHL games on either side of the 2004-05 lockout, most of them with the Los Angeles Kings.
"Missing those three years made me realize how important the game was to me," Barney told theScore recently. "It made me, overall, a better character and probably a better coach to this day."
Barney chased hockey around the world before he settled in Humboldt, the Saskatchewan farming town the sport rallied to support in 2018. Sixteen members of the Junior A Broncos - players, coaches, and team personnel - died in a bus crash that spurred Canadians to leave a stick on the porch out of grief and solidarity. The tragedy's fifth anniversary is next month.
During the Broncos' first season back on the ice, the franchise tapped as its new head coach a retired journeyman forward who played the game in 10 countries. Barney's presence stabilized the organization. Rebuilt through a dispersal draft and trades, his team returned to help Humboldt process its pain, memorialize the deceased, and move forward.
Doubling as general manager, Barney inherited the platform from which Darcy Haugan, the late Broncos coach and GM, promoted a core set of values. Haugan urged his players to act with respect and integrity and to strive for greatness in life. His death created a leadership void in the city of 6,000 that Barney helped fill.
"He's been a huge piece of that rebuild ever since the accident," said goaltender Rayce Ramsay, who played for Barney in Humboldt in 2018-19 and again last season. "There was a big emphasis on having a brotherhood and playing for each other. Being a family off the ice, and that would translate to performance."
Barney's Broncos are seeded second in the eight-team Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League postseason, which began last week. If the seedings hold, they’ll meet the juggernaut Battlefords North Stars in the championship series. The North Stars won 48 of 56 games this season, but Humboldt beat them in four of six matchups.
The head coach and GM of Battlefords, Brayden Klimosko, hails from Humboldt and won the 2008 Junior A national title as a Broncos left winger. He attests that Barney's job is uniquely demanding.
"The spotlight is on that club day-to-day," Klimosko said. "He's done a really good job of keeping the community (engaged) and trying to build that program, really, from the ground up."
Broncos players and colleagues describe Barney, a father of two, as charismatic and graceful under pressure. An adept listener, goofy or serious depending on the moment, he aims to stock his team with good citizens.
SJHL rosters change yearly, but the young men who comprise them help power the community. They shovel driveways after blizzards hit. They lug boxes when a business moves locations. Players new to Humboldt since the crash receive with grace the sorrow expressed to them, said Broncos season ticket holder Al Gaetz, a team builder who was the franchise's GM in the 1970s.
He thinks their empathy stems from Barney.
"He's compassionate. He's a low-key person. He had an understanding. That was the biggest thing," Gaetz said.
"He played 16 years of professional hockey. He's never faced anything like this. But you could tell he did know ups and downs and sadness. That's what he handled so well."
Barney is 43 years old, stands 6-foot-4, and grew up east of Toronto in Oshawa idolizing Eric Lindros, the hulking star of the OHL Generals in the early 1990s. A cerebral power forward who captained the rival Petes, Barney met his wife, Tara, in Peterborough and shared the ice there with a handful of future NHL veterans, including Stanley Cup winners Shawn Thornton and Jason Williams.
Drafted 29th overall in 1997, Barney turned pro at the end of his final junior season and joined the Kings' AHL affiliate for a five-game trial as his back deteriorated. Beset by pain that prevented him from bending over, he didn't skate for the next three years as surgery, rehab, and cortisone shots failed to resolve the ordeal. Barney delivered potato chips for Frito-Lay in Peterborough and pondered retiring.
Visits to Montreal osteopath Dave Campbell - "He started from my neck right down to my ankles," Barney said - restored his mobility and saved his career. Thrice-weekly appointments with a physical therapist in Toronto, Dave Wright, helped Barney rebuild strength. Persistence rewarded, he reported to Kings training camp in 2002 as a 23-year-old rookie.
"Ten minutes into the first practice, I was pretty much done in," Barney said, laughing.
Assigned to the Manchester Monarchs for two seasons, Barney put up 11 points for the Kings in 24 games as an occasional call-up. Los Angeles promoted him when Zigmund Palffy dislocated a shoulder in January 2004. Barney tallied his first NHL goal, solving Dwayne Roloson in a 2-2 tie with the Wild, then hung around long enough to score on David Aebischer, Martin Biron, Martin Gerber, and Chris Osgood.
Coaches in the Kings organization influenced him in different ways. Bruce Boudreau, his AHL bench boss, was a gifted communicator and was unfailingly supportive of his players. At the NHL level, Andy Murray's preparedness and exhaustive scouting reports stood out.
"On the road, you got a little sheet under the door and basically had everything that the other team's doing," Barney said. "(Murray's practices were) never 20 minutes or 30 minutes. It was 21 minutes or 23 minutes, and very structured and punctual. It was good to see both sides."
The NHL lockout halted Barney's momentum. Idle for another year, he made three appearances with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005-06, then journeyed over the next 12 seasons to distant points of three continents.
Barney suited up for the Chicago, Hershey, and Grand Rapids AHL franchises. Stints followed with German, Finnish, Czech, Swiss, Austrian, and Italian pro squads. Barney lit up the Asia League, producing 87 points in 42 games for the Seoul team High1 in 2012-13. He signed in China, FaceTiming to see the birth of his second child when Tara moved home to be near family that season, he once told The Peterborough Examiner.
His career ebbed in South Korea. Accompanied by his family, Barney played for the powerhouse club Anyang Halla in 2017-18 alongside half of the country's PyeongChang Olympics lineup. He mentored young teammates, sharing tips on how to win faceoffs and sustain possession along the boards. That he'd coach in retirement was inevitable.
"A lot of guys told me for my last four or five years: I need to get involved with coaching," Barney said. "I had a lot of chats with former players and my wife. Everybody was behind it 100%."
Barney headed back to Canada and applied to be Humboldt's assistant coach in the wake of the crash. Hired as Nathan Oystrick's deputy, he took over as interim head coach three days after Christmas when Oystrick and the organization parted ways.
The rebuilt Broncos reeled off 10 straight wins under Barney and Troy Smith, the longtime OHL coach he brought aboard as a temporary assistant, and forced overtime in Game 7 of their opening playoff series. Losing that contest didn't deter the team from retaining Barney as head coach and GM.
Barney brought to the role big-game experience as a player. He was new to the OHL when the Petes topped Granby in the round-robin stage of the '96 Memorial Cup, then lost the foggy championship rematch a week later. Playing for Boudreau's Hershey Bears in 2007, Barney paced the AHL playoffs with 10 goals, though Carey Price shut the door in the Hamilton Bulldogs' five-game Calder Cup triumph.
Coaching the 2018-19 Broncos was the toughest job in hockey, numerous media outlets wrote throughout that season. Barney told his players, a few of whom were on the bus and rehabbed to return to the team, that he was always available to talk. He said immersing themselves in the game could be healing.
He practiced what he preached.
"If we're doing conditioning on the ice, he'll skate with us," Ramsay said. "Anything he wants us to do, he's going to do it, too. That speaks to his character. That's the guy you want to play for."
Sometimes, Barney doesn't hesitate to upstage his players. Still blessed with NHL skill, he's known to shoot between his legs in teamwide shootouts that cap practice. Braiden Koran, a Broncos forward from 2019-22, recalls Barney promising to part with $500 if he failed to win a breakaway challenge fans were invited to watch.
"He went out and won," Koran said. "We didn't end up getting that reward."
The Broncos win a lot under Barney. His points percentage over 199 games as head coach is .633. Barney's led Humboldt to the playoffs in every SJHL season that the pandemic didn't truncate.
"There hasn't been a slide in their performance since he's taken over," said Klimosko, the Battlefords head coach and Broncos alumnus.
Barney's motto is that player development begets winning. His job is to shape young men. Select Broncos alumni captained NHL teams (Terry Ruskowski, Curt Giles) or were productive at that level (Kelly Chase, Sheldon Brookbank), but most SJHL players aspire to progress to college hockey on either side of the border, like Koran has at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa and Ramsay has at the University of Toronto.
Barney imparts life lessons while they're in Humboldt - "One of his main points was that coaches will always take good people over good players," Koran said - and deploys them in the community. The Broncos serve breakfast to seniors and carry their groceries to the car. They walk shelter dogs and read or bowl with kids, hosting instructional ice time on the occasional Sunday to get underprivileged youth involved in the game.
They say Barney's a player's coach. He encourages them to be confident, hyping up good plays, and shares plainspoken pointers on how to fix a shortcoming.
"He's truthful and honest and upfront. You want a coach's advice, not them beating around the bush," said Amanda Schlachter, the vice president of the Broncos' board of directors and a team billet parent.
"He teaches them well. He gives them good advice to move forward. I think he's had really good things happen in his career. He wants to see these guys excel."
Challenged to lead when he took over for Oystrick as head coach and GM, Barney proceeded to steer the Broncos through the pandemic. Players isolated in their hometowns as the SJHL, duty-bound to follow health regulations that evolved, tried to organize a bubble that didn't materialize.
Plans changed "daily, weekly, by the minute," said former league president Bill Chow, who retired from his post last year. The Broncos wound up playing six games in a single three-week window between spring 2020 and fall 2021. Barney and his staff scheduled Zoom calls and devised remote group workouts to boost the players' mood.
"There were ups and downs. Mental health was a big problem with a lot of athletes. I'm sure many coaches would say the same. It was saying: Hey, we're just a phone call away," Barney said. "These kids go through different things than athletes did three, four, five years ago. You've got to adapt with the times."
When hockey paused, Barney scouted prospects through InStat, a video and statistical analysis service, staying ready to replenish the roster once normalcy returned. Casting a wide net for recruits - skaters from five provinces and an Illinois-bred goalie have played for Humboldt this season - takes up untold hours.
"But I wouldn't want to do anything else. I love being here early at the rink and putting the time in. Moving these players to the next level is my goal," Barney said. "Hopefully they leave and, one day, realize that playing for the Humboldt Broncos is a special thing."
Plans hatched four hours southwest of Humboldt brought the Broncos to life in 1970. The Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos supplied $3,000 and two sets of jerseys to create a Junior A namesake affiliate, according to a history of Humboldt’s team authored by its founding GM, the late local optometrist Gerry Rooney.
Small but fast and relentless, Humboldt's earliest lineups annoyed favored rivals and entertained the boisterous home crowd.
"The Humboldt fans, who must number half the town's population, are unique. They stand up for the entire game and chant incessantly. You'd swear they rehearse for it," a visiting reporter observed in the Red Deer Advocate in 1972. "It's likely the only arena in the world where the home team receives a 60-minute standing ovation."
Few Junior A clubs are as decorated as Humboldt's. The SJHL champion in 10 seasons, the Broncos beat the Camrose Kodiaks in multiple RBC Cup national finals, triumphing 3-1 in 2003 and 1-0 in 2008. Camrose's Joe Colborne, the future NHL forward, almost tied the '08 title game with one second left in regulation, firing a wrist shot from point-blank range that Broncos goalie Taylor Nelson lunged to snare with his glove.
"It's a historic franchise," Barney said. "Fans are used to winning here in Humboldt. We're trying to get back there as quickly as we can."
The Broncos play off Glenn Hall Drive - the Hall of Fame netminder is from Humboldt - at the 1,854-seat Elgar Petersen Arena, named for the beloved Broncos trainer and equipment manager who died at 82 in 2018 not long after the team returned to the ice.
Games spur people to leave the house on glacial winter evenings. Humboldt ranked second in SJHL attendance this season, per HockeyDB. Around town, a Broncos sticker is on every third vehicle, said Gaetz, the former GM.
Up 3-1 in their first-round playoff series, the Broncos could eliminate the Nipawin Hawks at home Friday night. They've outscored Nipawin 19-8 on aggregate after icing the SJHL's second-most potent offense in the regular season. Humboldt pumped in 232 goals in 56 games, trailing Battlefords' 284.
Humboldt's offensive style reminds Gaetz of the Edmonton Oilers, predicated as it is on efficient breakouts, team speed, and a power play that found twine at a league-best 26.4% clip.
“That's all because of (Barney’s) teaching. He's calm and cool on the bench. You never see him get erratic. He's not chewing out the referees when they make a bad call. He keeps good composure and the team is very disciplined, too," Gaetz said.
“And yet we are playing a tough brand of hockey. We don't take any crap from anybody, eh? That's all going to come from him.”
Barney won't lead the Broncos forever. Major junior is a step up in status, and Gaetz has heard rumblings that WHL teams have made overtures to Barney, recognizing his strong SJHL record. Atop the coaching ladder, two sons of Humboldt patrol NHL benches. Winnipeg Jets associate coach Brad Lauer was born and raised in town and Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was once a Broncos defenseman.
Barney's wife and kids - daughter Charlie, age 8, and son Jack, 6 - love life in Humboldt. They've made friends and established roots, a novelty for the family.
"With all the different places I've played, the joke was: Have stick, will travel," Barney said. "It's going to take a lot to move on. But obviously, hey: In the end, I want to get up to the higher level, and one day into the NHL."
Deciding when to leave will be Barney's call, Schlachter said on the board of directors’ behalf: "As long as his family and he want to stay here, we'll keep them for as long as possible."
The team Barney helms honors its history. Before a sellout crowd at the 2018-19 home opener, the Broncos retired the number of every player who was on the bus. They raised banners to commemorate the 16 deceased. Words of wisdom from Haugan, Barney's late predecessor, are displayed on a brown board in Elgar Petersen Arena's home dressing room.
Broncos alumni who played for Gaetz in the '70s phone him from time to time. Dispersed across the Prairies, they pass along names of standout minor hockey players - potential recruits - for him to recommend to Barney. They're proud to have worn the jersey.
"Once a Bronco, they never forget," Gaetz said. "It seems to be engraved into their souls or their hearts."
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.
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