Story and photos by Mark Newman
Grinder. Mucker. Scrapper. Digger. Gamer.
None of the tags given to forecheckers in hockey is particularly glamorous, but then neither is the role they play.
Their success isn't determined by the number of goals they score. It's their ability to pressure the other team, to skate with abandon, to kill penalties, to dig the puck out of the corners, to basically throw their weight around that makes the difference.
It's all about hard work. It's like the grunts in the military who put themselves in harm's way and risk their lives on the front line. In Hollywood, it's the stunt men throwing caution to the wind for the good of the picture.
It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it.
Every hockey team needs a Ryan Barnes.
"'Barney' is a physical player and a tenacious forechecker," says Griffins head coach Danton Cole. "He brings the best out in other players because they see how hard he works out there."
Cole knows a thing or two about forechecking. As a player, he wasn't the biggest guy on the ice, but he made up for it with his intensity, his willingness to do whatever it took to help the team. If it meant killing penalties, so be it.
Barnes wears the role like a badge of honor.
"Everybody wants to be on the scoresheet more, but it's important for us to convey to him that his value is more than that," Cole continues. "You need guys like that who go out and bang and do a lot of the grunt work.
"When there's been a physical confrontation, he's answered the bell every time. But the thing I really like is he's been great with details.
When guys like that stick with the system, it makes them more valuable.
"Offensively, he can make plays, but his contributions aren't always going to be reflected on the scoresheet."
When the Red Wings took Barnes with their second pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, they saw a young, physical player with the potential to put the puck into the net, a prospect who might develop into a player in the mold of a Darren McCarty -- in other words, a guy with skill who wasn't afraid to get his nose dirty.
Born in Dunnville, Ontario -- about 40 minutes west of Buffalo, N.Y. -- Barnes learned the value of hard work at an early age. His father and four uncles toiled in the excavation business started by his grandfather nearly a half-century earlier.
"They all worked together," Barnes says. "That was my first job -- sh oveling stone for my dad."
It wasn't exactly Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone toiling under the watchful eye of Mr. Slate at Bedrock Quarry & Gravel, but even a guy with rocks for brains could tell it wasn't an easy way to earn a paycheck.
All work and no play makes for a dull boy, so Barnes happily filled his time playing sports -- his passion being pond hockey and later, lacrosse.
"I started playing lacrosse when I was six or seven," he recalls. "My dad thought the contact would be good for me. There's no hitting in hockey until peewee, but in lacrosse there's hitting as soon as you're old enough to play.
"Being the aggressive type, it was a natural fit for me."
Ryan, the oldest of three children born to Terry and Kathy Barnes, liked the physical aspect of playing hockey. Nobody was going to push him around and, when the time came, he wasn't afraid to drop the gloves. His parents were fully supportive.
Some might cringe at the sight of their son spilling blood, but if any mother could stomach it, it's probably Barnes' mom. As a phlebotomist, she draws blood for a living.
"I've always been a rough-and-tumble kind of player," he says. "I really like to play that role and it's something that just comes natural to me."
For his part, Barnes is just happy to be healthy this season -- the past couple of years have not been kind to him.
Two years ago, he missed most of the season with a concussion.
Ironically, the injury occurred while playing in the Red & White Game at Van Andel Arena in September 2000.
"I hit somebody and he tried to step out of the way, but we caught shoulder to shoulder," Barnes recalls. "The force spun me around and his stick, I guess, hit me in the temple. It knocked me out cold."
Barnes was sidelined for a couple of months. "I'd walk up stairs and get headaches, feel dizzy and stuff like that," he says. "It was one of the toughest things I had to deal with as far as hockey goes because there's nothing you can do but rest."
It was early December before Barnes was skating again, and he didn't start playing for Toledo in the East Coast Hockey League until late January.
"Even then I was so out of shape, it was tough for me to get back in the groove," he says.
Last season, his first in the American Hockey League, he was dogged by an undiagnosed injury while playing for Cincinnati, which shared an affiliation with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Red Wings.
"It was frustrating because nobody knew what was wrong. A doctor in Detroit finally identified it as a hernia," says Barnes, who went under the knife following the season.
"I'm just happy that I'm finally healthy again," he says. "I'm getting a lot of ice time and I feel like I'm making a pretty strong contribution to the team -- taking care of my own end, killing penalties, playing a physical role and taking care of my teammates."
Barnes also was doing his best not to get discouraged by his relative lack of offensive production -- he had only one goal in his first 29 games -- and it paid off with two goals in less than 10 days.
"It's been frustrating, but I know the goals are going to come," Barnes says. "I'm getting my chances -- hitting posts, goalies making good saves -- and it's only a matter of time before they start going in. In the meantime, I'm concentrating on doing other things that will help the team."
In some ways, his role with the Griffins is not unlike the part his good buddy Sean Avery plays in Detroit.
"We talk almost every day," says Barnes, who was Avery's teammate in Cincinnati last season. "We help each other. If he's up (with the Wings), I'll watch him on TV and offer my two cents on the game. When he comes down (to the minors), he helps me here and there. We're always pulling for each other."
The two even train together during the summer. Barnes' former junior coach in Barrie hooked him up with a personal trainer, who helps with the, ahem, finer points of the game.
"His name is Jamie Fawcett and he's done some Ultimate Fighting and kickboxing," Barnes says. "I train with him during the summer. It's really helped me. I always had the will (to fight) -- now I've got some knowledge to go with it."
Comfortable with his role on the team, Barnes is just excited to be able to contribute on a consistent basis. "I'll do anything I can to make the Griffins a better team and make myself a better player," he says.
"It's fun to go out and play hard and play physical. You get the crowd involved and you get your teammates going. When you lay your body on the line, it shows you'll do anything for the team to win. Every team needs a couple of guys like that."
More than anything, Barnes -- who turns 23 on Jan. 30 -- is just happy to be playing the game that he loves.
"This is my third year as a pro, but because of injuries, I really haven't had a full season yet. If you look at it that way, I think I'm going in the right direction," he says. "I'm expecting bigger things out of myself during the second half."
Barnes is trying to follow the example set by the Griffins' veterans.
"When you watch experienced players like Kinger (Derek King), Pic (Michel Picard) and Richie (Travis Richards) and you see how hard they work and what they've done with their careers, it says something."
Barnes has always had a deep interest in the game. "My dad has had a subscription to The Hockey News for as long as I can remember, and when I was younger he was always yelling, ‘Where is it? Where is it?' "I'd come home from school and I'd study the stats and look at who got traded or sent down. I've always had that interest. I still do. I love to sit down with the boys over dinner and talk about who's playing well in the NHL and who's not."
When his playing days are over, Barnes would love to manage a pro or junior hockey team, which is no surprise given his interest in the game and the fact that sports seem to run in his family.
His mother competes in 5k road races and his sister, Amanda, worked for the Hamilton Bulldogs last season on a co-op arrangement. "Now she's going to George Brown College in Toronto -- she's decided sports marketing is s omething she'd like to do," Barnes says.
Then there's his little brother, Mitch, who is playing AAA hockey at the peewee level. "He's only 12 years old, but has some talent," Barnes says.
"He came down and skated with us during an optional practice. He roofed one on (goalie) Joey (MacDonald) and the guys definitely got on Joey about that."
Barnes says he's worked a little with his sibling, but he's been careful not to be the overbearing big brother.
"I try to encourage him," Barnes says. "If he keeps working on his game, he might be able to play in the pros someday, too."
If he's anything like his brother, there are a few teams that might want to take note.