Major descent to the minors

A one-week demotion left All-Star Buffalo goalie Tom Barrasso steaming
November 12, 1984

Very late on Halloween, Tom Barrasso sat in the nearly deserted locker room of the War Memorial Auditorium in Rochester, N.Y. with his costume—make that uniform—spread on the floor around him. Barrasso had dressed up that night as a minor league goaltender, and had turned aside 17 of 18 shots for the Rochester Americans as they won their second game with Barrasso in goal, beating the St. Catharines Saints 4-1. The Amerks are the Buffalo Sabres' top farm club, and four days earlier the 19-year-old Barrasso, who last season was a first-team NHL All-Star and winner of both the Vezina (top goalie) and Calder (top rookie) trophies, had gotten the word from Scotty Bowman, general manager and coach of the Sabres, to pack his bags. Barrasso's goaltending wasn't up to snuff; Bowman didn't feel he could depend on him. So it was down to the American Hockey League for Barrasso, to play himself back into form. Never mind that the 1984-85 season was less than three weeks old, and that in six appearances with the Sabres Barrasso had a 2-3 record with a goals-against average of 4.09—the league average is 4.00. Or that as recently as September, during the Canada Cup, Rod Langway of the Washington Capitals had called him "the best goaltender in the world." Trick? Or treat? Welcome, young fella, to the major league mind games of William Scott Bowman.

"It's humiliating," Barrasso said after the St. Catharines game, despite a gag order put on him during what would be an eight-day demotion. "Last year I served them well and gave them the best I could, and now all I feel is a lot of resentment."

Last season Barrasso merely made history as the first goalie to jump directly from high school—Acton-Boxboro, outside Boston—to the NHL, and just the third to win the Vezina and Calder trophies in the same year. The first two were Frank Brimsek (Bruins, 1938-39) and Tony Esposito (Black Hawks, 1969-70). Barrasso had been Buffalo's surprise first pick—fifth overall—in the 1983 entry draft, and his remarkable rookie season had added to Bowman's reputation as a shrewd and daring G.M.

Barrasso's troubles began during the Canada Cup. He played spectacularly in the preliminary round robin, leading the U.S. team to a second-place finish with a 3-1-1 record. In the semifinal match against Sweden, however, Barrasso allowed four goals in the first 12 minutes and pulled himself from the game, which the U.S. eventually lost 9-2. "I couldn't have stopped a truck that night," Barrasso says now.

Things didn't get much better once the NHL season began. "It was inevitable to let down a little mentally after we lost in the Canada Cup," Barrasso says. "I wasn't playing spectacularly, but I don't think I was playing badly." Barrasso won the Sabres' home opener against Montreal, 4-3, on Oct. 11. But then he, and the Sabres in general, started to struggle. They lost to the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs, split a pair of games with the Quebec Nordiques, then won a shoot-out against the Minnesota North Stars 8-6. Bowman hates shootouts. When the team's record fell to 4-4 on Oct. 26 after a 7-3 loss to the Red Wings—the last three goals going into an empty net—Bowman acted. Barrasso arrived for practice the next day, but Bowman told him not to dress. "I figured I had the day off," Barrasso says. "Then I saw Jacques Cloutier come in, and I knew something was up." Cloutier had been playing goal for Rochester; he had won his first seven starts with the Amerks.

"It could have happened to any one of us—including me," says 20-year-old defenseman Phil Housley, Barrasso's closest friend on the Sabres. "Tommy was playing well, but sending him down snapped us out of it."

Bowman denies using Barrasso as a pawn. "There isn't anything to read into it," he says. "Tommy wasn't playing well. He missed a few goals, long shots rather than short ones, and allowed some in critical situations. Inactivity isn't the answer for a young goalie, or any young player. Rochester was playing five games in eight nights, and we weren't. I guess you could call it a little impatience on my part, but I think that's the way to get him back to form quickly."

Barrasso was justifiably furious. Never in the history of the league had the reigning first-team All-Star goalie been sent down to the minors. "I wanted to beat the——out of somebody," he says. Barrasso's temperament doesn't leave room for self-doubt, and it's virtually impossible to solicit an opinion of him without hearing the adjective "cocky." This self-confidence, a sort of thumb-your-nose attitude toward the rest of the world, is ideally suited for work as solitary and pressure-packed as goaltending, yet here was Bowman—the great Scotty Bowman, winner of five Stanley Cups with Montreal and soon to be the winningest coach in NHL history—banishing Barrasso to the bushes after six middling starts.

"I've got to wonder what kind of a game Bowman's playing," says Bill Watters, Barrasso's agent, who had to talk him into reporting to Rochester, "and whether he has permanently damaged his relationship with Tom Barrasso. If there were disciplinary problems—maybe because Tommy had a big head—then this thing might have been acceptable. But that wasn't the case. I'd have known. Scotty's very communicative that way. Obviously, the move was for the impact it would have on the team—that no one is immune—and I don't think that's right. In four years this boy's going to be a free agent, and they'll be lining up at the wicket for him if he keeps playing like he did last year. Tommy, as far as he's concerned, has been betrayed."

Longtime Bowman watchers were less than shocked by Barrasso's demotion—temporary though it was. Says Red Fisher of Montreal's The Gazette, "It's vintage Bowman. The team's not going well, so he looks around and sends down the guy who's going to make the biggest impact. Why shoot pellets when you've got a cannon on hand? Scotty has no objection to humiliating people if he thinks it's going to help him win. But it worked in Montreal because he had a lot of outstanding veterans on the team who let the younger guys know what Scotty was all about. Scotty's a winner. The big danger in Buffalo is that he has younger players. Will it work for him with all those kids? Will it work for him with Barrasso? This might hurt him down the road."

Bowman's critics point out that he has a history of handling young players with a blacksmith's touch. Guy Lafleur, for one, took three long seasons to develop into an NHL star under Bowman. The Sabres, with an average age of 24 years, six months, are the second-youngest team in the league. If they are to be the legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup that most experts consider them, they will need superior playoff performances from their kids—especially Barrasso. Last year, after finishing with the fourth-best regular-season record, the youthful Sabres tensed up in the playoffs and lost in three straight games to the Nordiques.

"Granted, Scotty gives youngsters a chance to play," says Bucky Kane, who before parting ways with Bowman last summer was his assistant and the man credited with convincing him to draft Barrasso. "But there's plenty of young guys who can't play for him because they're too nervous about making a mistake. Barrasso's one of the top prospects of all time. What are you going to do? Ruin him? Granted that Tommy hasn't been playing well, but this has certainly been handled in a bullish manner."

Barrasso, meanwhile, allowed six goals in his 3-1-1 stay with Rochester. He generally looked sharp, and by Monday he was back with the Sabres. "It's too early to tell if anything positive's going to come out of this," he says. "My parents keep telling me that it's going to help me later in my career. Builds character."

The best goalie in the NHL didn't look convinced.

PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLBarrasso kicked out this St. Catharines shot while showing his best stuff in his Rochester stint. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLBowman, who coached Montreal to five Stanley Cups, is a master of the shock tactic. PHOTOBRUCE BENNETTIn 1983-84 Barrasso became the third player to win both the Vezina (left) and Calder.