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."