It’s not easy turning skeptics into believers.
For some it takes the right opportunity to prove your worth, while for others it lies in believing in your abilities and drowning out the critics.
For a professional hockey player who was the 152nd pick in a draft that holds 211 players, there are never many believers on your side. Thankfully though for the Tampa Bay Lightning, they drafted a player who didn’t need anybody in his corner for motivation.
All Mark Barberio needed, rather, was an interminable work ethic, a team-first attitude, and a drive to be the best all-around player he could be.
Fast forward four years later, and the critics have seemed to disappear as Barberio, who was once labeled a long-shot prospect, has developed into one of the most elite defenseman in the American Hockey League.
“I always believed in myself,” Barberio said. “I don’t think it matters what round you get drafted in or even if you get drafted at all, the only thing that matters is you have to believe in yourself and work as hard as the next guy. I have had to prove a few people wrong, but I was always confident in my ability that I could progress as a player, and thankfully I have had that opportunity with the Lightning organization.”
The 2008 NHL Entry Draft was staged in Ottawa, Ontario, which is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Barberio’s hometown of Montreal, Quebec. Many rankings and projections had Barberio being selected from the second round to not being selected at all, so with all of the uncertainty, it would have made sense if Barberio decided to skip the event and wait it out at home.
Instead, the young rearguard thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime event that the whole family should experience, so off the Barberios went to Ottawa.
“I had no idea when, or even if, I was going to be selected,” Barberio noted. “The draft is a long process and I had all of my family there including my grandparents, so I was scared that if I didn’t get picked I would let them down. I remember as it went through five rounds I was getting really nervous, but just as all of these negative thoughts crept into my head, the Lightning selected me and it was an indescribable feeling. I went from a low to a high in a matter of seconds.”
The 6-foot, 201-pound rearguard played his junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 2006-10 with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and the Moncton Wildcats. It was in junior where Barberio started becoming a complete defenseman, most notably on the offensive side.
“You know, growing up I was never worried about stats,” Barberio said. “I always loved the offensive side of the game, but I never worried about numbers. I have been lucky enough throughout my career that I have had coaches who have allowed me to work on that side of my game. I think as I have gained experience through junior and now pro, that side of my game has developed more and more.”
And nobody is disputing that, in fact, one of Barberio’s biggest supporters is Lightning assistant general manager Julien BriseBois.
“Mark has progressed so much since being drafted and it’s all due to his work ethic and his honest approach to the game,” BriseBois noted. “He is an ultra-competitive player that has great skating and excellent on-ice awareness. His skating, puck handling, fitness level and eating habits have all come a long way since being drafted.”
Barberio’s progression to becoming an elite defenseman in the American Hockey League was a major reason the Lightning’s former affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, were able to capture the Calder Cup as the 2011-12 league champion.
It was a tremendous season for the sturdy blueliner, as not only did he capture the league’s ultimate prize, but he earned the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL Defenseman of the Year as well.
“It was something I never expected,” Barberio said. “If you were to tell me that after my second year of pro hockey I would win a Calder Cup and be the defenseman of the year, I would have said you were crazy, but everything just fell into place. We had such a great group of guys, and everyone did their part and focused on the task at hand.”
Focused would be an understatement for the 2011-12 Admirals squad, as they reeled of a professional hockey record 28-game winning streak, en route to steamrolling the competition to a Calder Cup Championship.
Though the Lightning have since moved their affiliate from Norfolk to Syracuse for the 2012-13 season, Barberio says the attitude in the room and ultimate goal has remained the same.
“Syracuse has been great so far,” Barberio said. “The fans are awesome and the city is awesome. I remember playing as the visiting team in Syracuse and the fans were always very loud and on top of you, so it’s good to be on the other side of that.
“A lot of the chemistry has boiled over from last season. I mean, we only won three months ago and a lot of the same guys are back so it has been a great transition. It’s very important for us now to forget about last season and focus one game at a time to reach our ultimate goal.”
Staying on the topic of setting goals, Barberio maintains a modest demeanor and prefers to only make team goals as opposed to personal goals.
“I have never been one to make personal goals,” Barberio said. “Obviously you want to work as hard as you can to reach the top level, but as athletes I think it’s important to make team goals if you want to win a championship. If everyone has the same goal throughout the season your team will be much more successful.
“You win as a team and you lose as a team, I have always been a firm believer in that.”
Singling out his parents as his biggest supporters growing up, Barberio says his mom and dad instilled and preached a solid work ethic in him from the day he was born, and it is that work ethic that Barberio will continue to rely upon in order to reach the National Hockey League.
“There are still a lot of things I have to work on in terms of my overall game to get to the next level,” Barberio said. “The Lightning coaching staff will know when I am ready to make the jump, so all I can do right now is continue to work on my game and when I get a chance try my hardest to make an impression.”
BriseBois thinks Barberio’s chance could be quickly approaching.
“I think after a season like last year where he improved by leaps and bounds, he definitely has a shot,” Brisebois noted. “He has come in this season and picked up right where he left off. Mark is knocking at the door right now for sure.”
It looks as though everyone believes in Barberio now.
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