He's Their Saving Grace

Goalie Tom Barrasso overcame a family crisis to lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup finals again
May 31, 1992

Hasn't Tom Barrasso been around forever? Wasn't it a trillion years ago that Barrasso jumped from high school to the Buffalo Sabres and became the NHL's best goaltender in his first season? Didn't he get traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins sometime in the dim and distant past? Or does it only seem that way?

"I feel," Barrasso says with a dry chuckle, "like I'm at least 35. A very old 35."

Not quite. At 27, Barrasso has been a pro for a mere nine seasons. He didn't play against Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Giacomin, he modeled himself after them. And, hard as it is to believe, this is only the second consecutive spring that Barrasso has barred the goal as the Penguins skated into the Stanley Cup finals.

"It seems that for the saves you absolutely have to have, in the games you absolutely have to win, he's there," says Pittsburgh forward Rick Tocchet. "He makes the big saves." Barrasso smiles when he hears this. "Those are the saves that matter," he says.

Barrasso and the Penguins floundered early in this year's playoffs, falling behind the Washington Capitals 3-1 in the opening round. Since then he has made practically all the saves that mattered. He thwarted the Capitals, allowing seven goals in the last three games of that series as the Penguins prevailed in seven. He was impenetrable against the New York Rangers, as Pittsburgh shook off injuries to franchise player Mario Lemieux and forwards Joe Mullen and Bob Errey to win the Patrick Division title in six games. And against Boston in the Wales Conference finals, Barrasso stopped 115 of 122 shots to help the Penguins bury the overmatched Bruins in a four-game sweep.

"Tommy's on his game now," says Pittsburgh forward Kevin Stevens. "And when he's on his game, no one is better."

On the ice and in the dressing room, Barrasso is the same confident guy who always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. "The first time I met him, he told me he was going to play in the NHL," says Megan Barrasso, who started dating her husband when they both attended Acton-Boxboro High outside Boston. "I laughed at him. I thought it was funny."

He was serious. Hockey was the most important thing in his life. A few years later she married him anyway, and soon afterward they had a baby girl they named Ashley. "He was doing well in his career, we were happy together, everything was perfect," she says.

Then everything changed. Two years later, in the summer of 1989, Ashley was found to have neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer. Doctors gave her a 10% chance of living two more years` long-term survival was unlikely. "I found out what life is about," Barrasso says. "Life is not about playing hockey. My daughter was in a situation where it didn't look like she was going to see age three. That's something...." He pauses, steely gray eyes misty for a moment. "That's something that gives you tremendous perspective on your life. The most negative thing that had ever happened to me before my daughter became ill was being sent to the minors for a week. That should give you some idea of the enclosed world in which the professional athlete lives. Real-life circumstances like the ones I faced in June of '89 should change your perspective. That was something that was truly important. Anything we do as athletes is microscopic by comparison."

As Ashley underwent aggressive chemotherapy, Barrasso hit the books. He tackled medical texts with an enthusiasm he had previously reserved for Jacques Plante's Goaltending or the latest Tom Clancy techno-thriller. "He read everything he could get his hands on," Megan says. "We went nuts with the research. Tom wanted to be aware of all the options." Says he, "You really become a student of the disease."

In a 15-hour operation on Jan. 2, 1990, surgeons removed many of the tumors that had riddled Ashley's tiny body. The chemo, though, had destroyed her bone marrow; she needed a risky transplant operation. With his daughter fighting for her life, Barrasso found it hard to concentrate on stopping 35 shots a game. Just before the bone-marrow transplant in late February of '90, which was conducted by a specialist in Los Angeles, Barrasso asked the Penguins for a leave of absence. Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick didn't have to think twice. "Tom belongs with his family right now," Patrick said. Barrasso's private anguish was finally made public, and the catcalls that had accompanied his career-worst 4.68 goals-against average and 7-12-3 record that season dissolved into an outpouring of good wishes.

"I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I couldn't fathom being here and then getting a call saying that my daughter wasn't doing well and it didn't look like she was going to make it, and then going out there for a week and then have her gone. I would have been unable to live with myself if I had made that decision. I had to be there. If she didn't make it, those days would have been the most important days of my life."

Ashley dwindled to 20 pounds and suffered respiratory failure on March 1. She nearly died. Over the next two weeks, though, she gradually regained some of her strength. In mid-March, Barrasso rejoined the Penguins. A couple of weeks later his daughter went home.

As Ashley's health improved, Barrasso's new outlook became apparent. "His mind-set had changed," says Megan. "The most important thing in his whole life had been winning, and all of a sudden that wasn't true anymore. He worried whether he could come back and play with the intensity he'd had before."

Instead, Barrasso found he was more intense and focused. He set a club record with 27 wins during the '90-91 season and nailed down 12 more in the playoffs as Pittsburgh won the Cup. His 2.60 goals-against average led all playoff goalies.

More important, by late spring no trace of cancer was showing up in Ashley's tests. The doctors remain vigilant, checking regularly, but so far she has remained clean. At four Ashley is well past the two-year point since the diagnosis. She weighs just 38 pounds, and her red hair is wispy, a result of the chemotherapy, but she has her father's eyes, his determination and his occasionally defiant disposition. "She's a normal four-year-old," Megan says with a smile. Tom remembers when that was more than he could dare to hope for. The flashbacks come frequently. "You're sitting in your living room," he says, "and you see your daughter riding her bike down the street and you start to cry about it, because you're the happiest person in the world that she's still alive."

Barrasso is only too aware that the Penguins' other cancer story did not have a happy ending. Bob Johnson, the grand-fatherly man who had coached Pittsburgh to the championship, was stricken with cancerous brain tumors last August. He died in November. Johnson's replacement was the man who had scouted and drafted Barrasso for the Sabres, Scotty Bowman.

Bowman doesn't smile a lot—at least not in public—but a grin steals across his face when he remembers watching Barrasso play in high school. It was like something from a dream: a 6'3" teenager whose frame filled the goal, who handled the puck like Cheevers and who stopped shots with the reactions and technique of Tony Esposito. "Not too many people scored on him," Stevens says. I know I didn't."

"He was ahead of any goalie I'd seen at that age," says Bowman, then the general manager and coach in Buffalo. "When he made a save, the puck didn't just sit there. He'd make the save, then make the pass that would get a play going. Watch him. He still does that."

The Sabres snagged Barrasso with the fifth pick in the '83 draft. When he reached agreement on a contract late that summer, Barrasso skated away from Team USA, forfeiting his chance to play in the '84 Olympics. "My goal was always to be a professional hockey player," he says, "from the time I was live years old. I genuinely felt I was ready."

He proved it with a sensational rookie year. Barrasso went 26-12-3, allowing 2.84 goals per game. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender and the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. He bought a Pontiac Trans Am, traded it in for a Porsche, then traded in the Porsche to buy a Ferrari. He was 18 years old—the youngest goalie to win an NHL game since World War II. He was also brash enough to say whatever was on his mind and articulate enough to say it well. Thai didn't make him the most popular guy in the Buffalo dressing room. He was labeled as cocky, which was true, and arrogant, which was only sometimes true.

"When I came up, I can genuinely say I was not in awe of the situation," he says. "I felt I belonged. You come out and say that, and people say, 'What's he talking about? He's 18 years old. He's not supposed to be here.' I look back and wonder how I did it. Probably I was successful because I never doubted my abilities."

Then, six games into his second year, Barrasso, who was touted as the best U.S.-born goalie ever, was banished to the minors. He still feels Bowman made him a scapegoat for the team's poor play. "Not true," Bowman says. "It probably hurt his ego and his feelings, but the most important thing was to have someone stop the puck, and he wasn't doing it." The greatest goalie in American history? Welcome to the Rochester Americans. Although he scooted back up the New York State Thruway eight days later and completed what he considers a better season than his first, the humiliating demotion was the beginning of the end for Barrasso in Buffalo. His goals-against average went up nearly a full goal the next year, and it stubbornly stayed there as the Sabres declined. In '86 Bowman was fired, and Barrasso bore the brunt of the blame for the team's failings. He was sent to Pittsburgh a month into the '88-89 season for defenseman Doug Bodger and forward Darrin Shannon, a deal engineered by, of all people, Tony Esposito. The Buffalo News proclaimed the start of the Daren Puppa Era in the Sabre net. "That was just fine by me," Barrasso says.

The Penguins didn't need their goalie to be a superstar. They already had a superstar in Lemieux. That, too, was fine with Barrasso. As he relaxed, his game improved. He and Megan bought a home in the suburbs, just off the second fairway of the suburban Sewickley Heights Golf Club. He seemed poised for a big season, but '89-90 was a washout because of Ashley's illness. Last season the real Barrasso was back. "I went from being a forgotten man to a Stanley Cup champion," he says. "I'm still not quite sure how."

He laughs when asked about the reunion with Bowman. "You don't forget what happened in Buffalo," Barrasso says, "but in the scheme of things, it doesn't mean a hell of a lot right now. I mean, he is the greatest coach of all time." Bowman, 58, and within spitting distance of his sixth Stanley Cup, lobs a few compliments of his own. "I've always had a lot of confidence in Tom," he says. "When you really think about what he's done, and what he's gone through on and off the ice, it's hard to believe. He's extremely tough mentally. And he's ultra-competitive."

This season the talented Penguins, rocked by Johnson's death, coasted into the playoffs. On too many occasions in the regular season Barrasso would lose concentration and allow an easy goal, and Pittsburgh's generally good-natured fans weren't always forgiving. But Barrasso remains his own worst critic, scribbling his failings into a notebook after each game.

The fire still smolders, though it doesn't consume him. He can check the pressure at the door of his comfortable living room, where he sits and watches his daughters, Ashley and two-year-old Kelsey, who was born in December '89. Megan is eight months pregnant, due two weeks after the Stanley Cup is hoisted by someone. Why not Tom Barrasso? That's what he wants to know. Why not?

"We're not doing this with mirrors, you know," he says. "This is the real thing. We did win the Cup last year. And we did it with me in goal. And we're in the final again this year, with me in goal."

Barrasso stops for a breath. His tone is philosophical. "I know I can't do enough for most people who see me play. I know that. It's been that way for a long, long time."

Or does it only seem that way?

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOBarrasso brushed aside 115 of 122 shots as he and the Penguins swept past the Bruins. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOTV's John Davidson got the scoop from Barrasso after the Bruin finale. PHOTOSCOTT GOLDSMITHMegan, with Ashley (on top) and Kelsey, is expecting a third child shortly. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOStevens, who was having a subpar series, broke out with four goals in Game 3.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)