Riley Barber thought long and hard about his decision, the same decision many young and talented hockey prospects face around this age. On one side stood Miami University, his college for two years in Ohio, where unfinished business awaited. The RedHawks missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, finished 15-20-3 and left Barber bitter.
On the other side was professional hockey; perhaps he could make a run this season at the roster in Hershey, AHL affiliate of the team that drafted him 167th overall in 2012, the Washington Capitals.
“I took in a lot of factors,” Barber said Monday. “I talked to my family and stuff. I think there’s a lot of unfinished business I have in Miami that I definitely want to take care of. That was the main thing that brought me back, especially the education part too, finishing three years is a lot better than finishing two.”
After leading the nation’s freshmen in scoring and earning league rookie of the year honors, Barber worried about a sophomore slump. Instead, he produced more points (44 to 39) in fewer games (38 to 40) than in his rookie season. But his greatest growth came on the international circuit, captaining the United States at the world junior championships. The USA Hockey organization solicited input from players and coaches alike, wondering who could best pass along the team’s overarching message and helm the ship in the face of adversity.
“The bottom line, both his teammates and his coaches knew what they were getting every night,” Jim Johannson, director of hockey operations for USA hockey, said recently by telephone. “His teammates really wanted him to be that guy.”
Being “that guy” meant shedding the shy persona that followed Barber to Capitals development camp in 2013, shortly after his freshman season with Miami. It not only meant taking care of himself in Sweden, but making sure others were awake and on time too. It meant learning when to speak up and when to defer to his teammates, many of whom were captains with their clubs.
“It’s definitely different,” Barber said. “You’re always a leader, but you take on so much responsibility. I think the main thing you have to change is you’re worrying about everyone else now. It’s not just you get ready for the game. You have to make sure everybody’s up, everybody’s going, on the same page.”
The United States wound up finishing second in its group then lost in the quarterfinals to Russia. The son of a figure skating coach and a former NHL player, Barber scored four goals over five games and had two assists. He was the veteran at the under-20 tournament, one month away from his 20th birthday, the one younger players sought out for advice.
“It was definitely a change to go from last year’s tournament where I was a younger guy, kind of on the shier side, going out doing my business to now, talking in the locker room, being helpful to the younger guys, making sure mainly that they know where to go and what time to be,” Barber said. “I think on the ice they take care of their own business. The main thing is off the ice, making sure everybody’s on the same page.”
This mirrored the connection Barber felt with the Capitals, when he was busy deciding whether to stay for another season with the RedHawks. Rather than dictate his timeline, they told Barber it was his decision and to take as long as he needed to make it.
“It was very relaxing,” Barber said. “Made it easy on me.”