Long way to the top

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

Nathan Barrett, one of the St. John's Maple Leafs' better young players, has a secret.

Barrett, the team's rookie of the year in 2003-04, the owner of 157 junior hockey goals and 17 more in his inaugural year as a pro, is the same Nathan Barrett who played goal in his first year of organized hockey in Surrey, B.C., because he couldn't stand up.

Ankles like pudding.

"I'd hang on to boards and use them to hold me up," Barrett said yesterday after the team's first practice of the new season.

Hang around the pros long enough and you'll shed the notion the best were always the best.

Mario Lemieux was better than kids much older nearly from the first moment he stepped on to the ice. The rest of the players who shared his generation, and nearly all those who would follow, weren't the best players on every team they played on.

Given a little time, every player in he AHL or NHL can name a dozen players they admired and would someday overtake.

None came as far back in the field than Nathan Barrett.

"The problem," his dad, Al, said, "was that Nathan got a bit of a late start. He didn't start playing until he was eight."

Al Barrett grew up in Nova Scotia, playing everything. He wanted the same for his kid.

Barrett wanted to be a professional skateboarder like his idol, Kareem Campbell.

Instead, his dad signed Nathan up for house league hockey and endured his kid's first and only season as a goalie.

Now, you can argue the merits of arm-twisting a kid into an activity they swear they hate, but Al Barrett was not a man to stick his kid in a program and let him founder.

He took Nathan to Friday night public skating. He enrolled him in power skating sessions in the summer.

And Nathan kept on hating it.

"I didn't want to play hockey at all because I was so bad," Nathan said.

It took several years before Nathan started enjoying hockey.

At 16, as a member of the Tri-City Americans, Barrett was being filled in by towering prairie defencemen. He scored one goal in 47 games.

A trade to Lethbridge jump-started his development. Barrett had a feel for the net and no fear of traffic. He would record 44, 45 and 46 goals and lead the WHL with 107 points.

Barrett is a fair skater but he is not big, just six feet and 190 pounds. Drafted in the eighth round by the Vancouver Canucks, he returned to junior and then didn't garner a draft choice.

"We remembered him from Vancouver and liked him," said Leafs assistant GM Mike Penny, a former Canuck executive. "He had some injuries in St. John's but he settled in really well. By the end of the year, there were a lot of nights when he was the club's best forward."

Now 23, Barrett is one labour settlement and an injury or two removed from the most famous hockey club in the country.

Toronto would bring a level of wealth that would be incomprehensible to his parents. Al still works as a crew foreman for a B.C. telephone company. Elaine Barrett spent years working logistics for movie crews.

It looks like it all worked out fine and you wonder if, after the tears and the struggles and pleading and convincing, the kid once turned to his dad and gave the old man his due.

Al Barrett laughs.

"No," he said. "We haven't had that conversation yet."

You can set a fussing and crying kid on a path that eventually takes him to the top of the world. It might take him 15 or 20 years to get there.

That, of course, is a millisecond compared to the wait for the words: "Thanks dad. I guess you were right."


Photos