When Stu Barnes thinks back to his early hockey-playing days, before he began a 16-year NHL career, it’s an outdoor rink in his hometown of Spruce Grove, Alta., that comes to mind first.
Conveniently located between his elementary and junior high schools, it was a short walk from home with a break in play only for dinner most nights of the week for young Stu.
“We’re lucky the rink had lights,” Barnes, now 47, said with a laugh. “We were out there for hours every day after school for as long as we could handle the cold.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but years later Barnes would have a rink of his own in Spruce Grove, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop on Dec. 31. The Stu Barnes Arena opened in 2009.
“It’s not something you’d ever expect would happen to you,” Barnes said of a rink being named after him. “I was more than excited, and wanted to be a part of it.”
Barnes attended the rink’s opening with his parents, Doug and Lynne, who still live in Spruce Grove and moved only recently from the house he grew up in.
Now an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars, Barnes returns home in the off-season and any time he can squeeze in a visit when the Stars visit the Oilers. With Spruce Grove located about 30 km west of the Alberta capital, he grew up an Oilers fan at a time when the team was winning Cups and Wayne Gretzky was breaking records.
“For a kid who was a hockey fan it was an awesome place to grow up,” Barnes said.
He played minor hockey in Spruce Grove until he left home at 16, “chasing the NHL dream,” he said.
He got one step closer to that dream in 1989 when the Winnipeg Jets drafted him fourth overall.
“It didn’t really hit me until days afterwards when I was all the way back home, sitting at my house,” he said.
Barnes would play parts of three seasons in Winnipeg before he was traded to Florida early in November 1993.
“In Winnipeg it was kind of hit or miss. I didn’t know if I was going to play or not. I was trying to get ice time,” Barnes recalls.
When he got to Florida, then-Panthers head coach Roger Nielson, who Barnes calls “one of the best guys ever in the game,” gave him a spot in the lineup right away.
“He said, ‘Away you go,’” Barnes says. “He let me play. [I made] mistakes, but I was [always] back in the lineup the next night, and that gave me confidence.”
After recording 44 points in the 1995–96 regular season, the centreman made his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Going through it, I don’t think we ever really thought we were going to lose,” Barnes says. “We just kept playing and kept going and believed in each other. We ran into obviously an unbelievable team in Colorado.”
The Panthers lost the series 4–0.
But Barnes would have another deep playoff run, in 1998–99, with the Buffalo Sabres. In the final, they met his current team, the Stars.
“It was a great series, it was an awesome series, back and forth,” Barnes says. “And of course it ends the way it ends and everybody talks about that.”
Everybody does. That was the “No Goal” Game 6, in which Barnes scored to tie it at 1–1 in regulation before the game went to triple-overtime and ended when Stars star Brett Hull scored — with a skate in the crease when the puck wasn’t, which was then illegal.
Of course, Barnes has heard plenty about that since he later played for the Stars and now is on the team’s coaching staff.
“I’ve always said I’d love to win one,” he says of the Stanley Cup. “Coming out on the wrong side of one is amazing; I can’t imagine what it would be like to win one. It must be unbelievable.”
It’s a moment he envisioned for himself plenty of times while playing on that outdoor rink near his house as a little kid. The rink — and its accompanying lights — is still there today.
“When they replaced the boards, my sister actually got a piece of the old boards for me,” Barnes says. “It’s a great memory of where I really developed my love for the game. It’s a great community, and a great place to grow up.”