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?