Los Angeles — If exceptionally talented people who never seem to get the recognition they deserve are your thing, then you found a winner in All-Star left-winger Bill Barber of the Philadelphia Flyers. Barber is the type whose twin sister, if he had one, would probably forget his birthday.
"Bill does so many things well on the ice that he might possibly be the best player in the National Hockey League," said Flyers' Coach Pat Quinn. "Bill is the best player I've got at making the mental transition from offense to defense , and with that reserve tank of his, he plays just as hard in the third period as he does in the first."
What the 6-foot, 190-pound Barber is chiefly noted for, however, is his ability as a penalty killer. Whenever one of his teammates is sitting out a two-minute penalty in hockey's "sin bin," Bill is invariably the first player Quinn orders back on the ice.
"Not many forwards in this league can move back in a penalty-killing situation and play defense like it was their natural position," Pat explained. "They usually do one thing well and that's it. But Barber has such an awareness of what's going on away from the puck that he makes penalty killing look easy.
"Although most people probably don't think of Bill as an outstanding scorer, he's actually averaged 35 goals and 39 assists per season during the last eight years," Quinn continued. "In fact, he had 37 goals coming into this year's All-Star game. They were mostly the result of outskating opponents who weren't willing to make that second effort."
Barber, who plays hard but not dirty, can always be counted on to forecheck on offense and back-check on defense. Checking is a pick-and-shovel part of the game that goes largely unnoticed by the fans, but that NHL coaches often make the focal point of their locker room talks.
If you have the patience after a game to wait while Bill praises the work of practically all his teammates, you might eventually get him to talk about himself. That was the goal of reporters after he contributed a goal and an assist during the NHL All-Star game, won by the Campbell Conference 4-1 in Los Angeles last Tuesday.
"Whenever I get into something I really like, it's important for me to understand what the whole job is and the best way to do it," Bill told me. "Hockey is a two-way game that doesn't give you any options. So if you're going to be half a player, why compete at all? You can call that pride or anything you like, but it's a feeling I acquired as a kid.
"For example, penalty killing doesn't appeal to a lot of guys because it takes so much out of you mentally and physically," he continued. "One mistake when your team is short-handed and your goalie is on his own, and the opposition is probably going to score. But I've always enjoyed the challenge of trying to 'read' the guy with the puck, reacting to what I think he's going to do, yet not getting caught in a position where the opposition can slip someone behind me."
Whether the Flyers actually deserve their reputation as five individuals trying to put the puck into the net with only token help from their teammates, Barber is never mentioned in that context. Instead, he is more apt to be referred to as the glue that holds his team together.
"When you're a coach and you've got a veteran player who hustles, who back-checks, who sometimes skates double shifts, who kills penalties, and who is unselfish in giving up the puck to a teammate, it sure makes things easier," Quinn said. "The rookies on the club see that and instead of the coach having to push them, they push themselves."
No wonder the Flyers' cutting edge happens to be a Barber!