Review by Budd Bailey
Matthew Barnaby was a hockey writer’s dream.
Take it from someone who was there at the time. The National Hockey League player was one of the most interesting personalities on a Buffalo Sabres’ team that had a number of them during the late 1990s. Barnaby was candid, funny and available during his time with the Sabres. Who could ask for more? Not me.
He was also capable of proving some great stories during the game. One time, Barnaby was lined up with Sergio Momesso of the Rangers for the opening faceoff. Matthew was talking – no surprise there – and I found out later that he had challenged his opponent to a fight as soon as the puck dropped. Of course, he did it while calling Momesso a man of Puerto Rican heritage (a slur was involved), which didn’t go over well with the Italian. The puck was dropped, Momesso started punching, and Barnaby “turtled.” That earned Momesso a two-minute minor for roughing. The TV camera then showed Barnaby on the bench, staring at Momesso across the ice in the penalty box, and giving him the traditional “finger to the side of the head” gesture that means “I’ve got brains, and you don’t.”
That story doesn’t show up in Barnaby’s book, “Unfiltered.” There are plenty of others, though, that fill up the 238 pages.
Barnaby’s life was something of a psychologist’s dream. He grew up without a father, living with his single mother and a much older brother. Every since then, it’s fair to say that he’s sought out attention. Mom was quite a character. One time on a team flight, I spent most of the trip talking to her between Ottawa and Buffalo … and found her chatty and very entertaining. Barnaby looked up to brother Brent, who kept a lookout for him as best he could.
Like every good young Canadian boy, Matthew gave hockey a shot – and found out that he was pretty good at it. Even better, his desire to climb the ladder of the sport was intense. Once he had a late growth spurt, he was big enough at least to get a look from those at a higher level. Barnaby was willing to do whatever it took to take that next step – which in the hockey of that era meant he’d be willing to be punched in the mouth.
Barnaby was drafted by the Sabres in 1992. He spent some time in the minors, but in 1995 Matthew landed in Buffalo and the NHL for good. Waiting for him was Ted Nolan, who seemed to be something of a father figure for Barnaby. Not surprisingly, Matthew played his best hockey under Nolan. Barnaby was at his most effective when he was the classic hockey pest. Yes, he piled up the penalty minutes, but he also could play. Matthew was never better than he was in 1996-97, when he had 19 goals and 24 assists with 249 penalty minutes in 68 games.
But the honeymoon ended as soon as Nolan’s time as coach of the Sabres ended in 1997. Barnaby didn’t get along well with new coach Lindy Ruff, and his play suffered a bit. The exception came in the 1998 playoffs, when Barnaby had a great run that included a hat trick on Mother’s Day. If a Conn Smythe Trophy had been awarded after the first two rounds of those playoffs, Barnaby might have won it.
Eventually, Barnaby finally got his wish to be traded, going to Pittsburgh for Stu Barnes. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for – Matthew did some major bouncing around in the years after leaving Buffalo. He played for the Penguins, Lightning, Rangers, Avalanche, Blackhawks and Stars. Part of the problem was that he was the designated fighter on some of those teams, which wasn’t a good use of his talents. Barnaby was too small to match up against tough guys like Bob Probert and Stu Grimson, and he needed minutes to show he could contribute on the ice.
Finally, the game took a toll on Matthew, and he walked away from the game after 834 career games in the NHL – about 834 more than could have been expected out of him. Barnaby has struggled finding his role after hockey. A stop as a commentator at ESPN doesn’t received much coverage in the book. He’s had a couple of well-publicized but probably somewhat misunderstood incidents that involved law enforcement along the way too.
That’s his story in several paragraphs. So how’s the book, you ask? A bit of a disappointment, considering he has quite a life story. Matthew is still honest and funny, and that helps him here. The best parts probably concern his time with the Sabres, since he has some good stories to tell about what happened behind the scenes.
However, there are problems. The book feels a bit padded, as some information is more or less repeated (and the same quote from Nolan shows up word-for-word twice along the way). Many of the stories seem to center on excess drinking. While such tales no doubt will be greeting enthusiastically by some, others at best may put them into the “you probably had to be there” category. Barnaby seems to group people into two categories – awesome or awful, black or white. There’s not much gray here. If only people were that simple to judge.
Matthew’s post-hockey life hasn’t been a straight line toward happiness, but he seems to have settled into a better spot. Barnaby is in a good domestic situation, and he’s working for a sportsbook now. “Unfiltered” offers Matthew’s perspective on a life that certainly didn’t go down the usual roads. Those who remember him from a quarter-century ago are still rooting for him to find happiness.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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