His mother, Stacy, coached figure skating for five hours a day. She would bring Riley, the oldest of her three children, to the rink with her every day.
Though he was still honing his walking skills when he joined her on the ice for the first time, it wasn’t long before Riley was skating alongside — and even keeping up with — the “big kids.”
But while his skating was comparable, Barber differed from his mother’s figure skating pupils in one significant way:
“He always had a stick in his hand,” Stacy Barber said.
That was the territory of his father, Don.
Like his son, Don Barber played college hockey (for Bowling Green) and was a sixth-round selection, taken 120th overall in the 1983 draft by the Edmonton Oilers. Also a right wing, he went on to play parts of four seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and San Jose Sharks.
Don helped Riley master the game as he ascended the youth ranks, giving him tutelage that helped him become the No. 1 overall pick in the junior U.S. Hockey League draft in 2010. When NHL draft day came around two years later, he had an important message for his son:
“He told me on Day One, ‘It’s not where you’re drafted; it’s what you do after,’ ” Riley said. “I really took that to heart.”
As his family exchanged its Penguins gear for rival Capitals colors (his mother said “we’re Capitals fans now,” though they still watch the Penguins), Riley got to work.
A few months after the draft, he headed to camp with the U.S. national team’s development program and made the roster for the 2013 world junior championship in Russia. The 23-man roster featured 12 first- or second-round NHL draft picks. Playing on the top line along with Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft who saw time with the Montreal Canadiens last season, Barber scored three goals in the tournament. The Americans won the gold medal.
From there Barber headed to Miami of Ohio, where Coach Rico Blasi saw enough in his 19-year-old freshman (young by college hockey standards) to feature him on the RedHawks’ top line. Barber became the nation’s top freshman scorer on his way to being named first-team all conference and his league’s rookie of the year.
“You never know with a freshman, but Riley’s always been a very gifted player, always been a goal scorer, and we put him in that [first-line] slot,” Blasi said. “Credit him for taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Stacy Barber said appreciating and taking advantage of opportunity is something she and her husband preach to Riley. It’s just one of several off-ice lessons the Barbers have handed down, informed by Don’s life in the pro game. One of the most prominent, Riley said, is the idea that “‘you think you work hard enough, but you have to work 10 times harder.”
“We’ve just been reminding him on a daily basis that it’s just such hard work and the work never ends,” Stacy said. “Playing in the NHL is a dream, and it’s a great thing to conquer your dreams, but you really have to realize: The more success you have, the harder you have to work.”
According to Blasi, that kind of drive has never been a problem for Barber.
“He’s always looking for the next shift to be better than the first.” Blasi said. “. . . Every time he goes on the ice, he’s always pushing the envelope.”
That “keeping my foot on the gas pedal” approach, as Barber calls it, has impressed Capitals executives, who were ecstatic to see him available when their turn came in the sixth round.
“It was a surprise to get a guy that low that good. Why he fell, I don’t know, but we’re glad he did,” said Steve Richmond, the Capitals director of player development who checks in with Barber once a week during the season.
“We’re not surprised at the year he had. The thing about him is that he keeps getting better. . . . Every game he got better. He’s better now than he was three months ago.”
Richmond said the Capitals see the 6-foot, 194-pound Barber as a potential “top-six” forward, a smart player who can “play in any situation.”
Though he’s a few years removed from bidding for an NHL roster spot, Barber almost certainly will face a decision whether to stay in college or leave early for the pros at some point. For now, he will return to Miami next year as a business major, taking things “one year at a time.”
Both his family and the Capitals are happy with that.
“Our approach with all the college players over the years has been ‘We’re never going to come to you and ask you about leaving school,’ ” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. “We love the way he’s developing. He’s going [to Miami] for another year, and then we’ll see.”
If the time comes for Barber to leave early, Stacy said he’ll return and finish his degree.
“I really do feel like because we’ve lived the life of a hockey player, we know there’s life after hockey, and I wanted him to realize that and have the college experience,” she said.
“When he’s ready to go and they think he’s ready to go, I’m good with him going. I think we all are.”