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This article was published 29/10/2018 (409 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TAMPERE, Finland — Others might view his story as a long fall from grace, but Cam Barker is enjoying life out of the ruthless spotlight of the NHL.
It’s the contentment that comes with being a young father and husband, still playing the game he loves in a vibrant seaside city for an organization with a rich hockey history.
The Winnipegger — immediately plunged into the pressure cooker after his name was called by the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2004 NHL Draft, right behind a pair of surefire future hall-of-fame forwards in Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin — says it feels good to be wanted.
"I honestly feel unreal right now, probably best I’ve felt in a long time," said Barker, during a short chat before his debut with Ilves Tampere of the Finnish SM-Liiga on the weekend. "When this opportunity came up, I thought it was such a good fit. The team’s super young, offensively minded, and they were looking for a guy that absolutely fit my bill.
"The last few seasons I’ve been asked to be more of a stay-at-home guy, with really no freedom to wheel and deal. I’m not exactly a defensive specialist. So, it should be a good situation here."
This is Barker’s sixth season playing abroad, including stints with Barys Astana (Kazakhstan) and Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), both of the KHL, and a stint last spring with the Langnau Tigers of the Swiss elite league, which was cut short after he broke an ankle.
The unique ride has been challenging, but financially and culturally rewarding, since his career in the NHL came to an abrupt end at the age of 27. Barker, 32, made plenty of money playing in North America — about $10 million — and still lives more than comfortably now while cashing cheques from Finland’s premier league.
"It’s a great city. A lot of guys I know have been through here in the past, so I’m pretty at ease as far as getting my wife and kids over here," Barker said. He and his wife, Alana, and their young sons, Harvey and Nolan, make their off-season home in Summerland, B.C. "It’ll be an easy adjustment, certainly easier in relation to what could have been in Russia."
What could have been — indeed, an intriguing choice of words from a former junior star with Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League and widely considered to be one of Chicago’s biggest draft mistakes.
At 6-3, 220 pounds, Barker was a star with the Tigers for more than three seasons. In his 214 games in junior, he compiled 51 goals and 128 assists for 179 points, and was selected to two Canadian world junior championship teams, winning back-to-back gold medals (2005 and 2006).
Barker scored 21 goals, chipped in 44 assists and racked up 105 penalty minutes in his draft year (2003-04) in Medicine Hat.
The combination of a big frame — frequently used to disintegrate opposing forwards in open ice and along the wall — and slick puck-moving skills were indicators a prosperous career as a top-two NHL blue-liner was well within reach.
The Blackhawks had certainly hoped so when they plucked him third overall at the ‘04 draft in Raleigh, N.C., although then-general manager Dale Tallon was really left with few ideal options. Chicago could have owned a top-two pick, obtaining either Ovechkin or Malkin, but the ping-pong balls didn’t fall the team’s way.
Barker was taken third, the Carolina Hurricanes scooped up Andrew Ladd in the No. 4 spot, while the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes chose Blake Wheeler fifth overall.
After bouncing between Chicago and the American Hockey League for two seasons, Barker earned regular duty in 2008-09 and registered what would be his finest NHL season, scoring six goals and helping orchestrate 34 others in 68 games.
His numbers dropped drastically a season later — just four goals and 10 assists, before a 2010 trade flipped Barker to the Minnesota Wild.
He’s remembered in Chicago as a serviceable, though unspectacular, blue-liner through 200 games over parts of four seasons with the Blackhawks, providing 17 goals and 63 assists.
It was bittersweet, he admitted, watching guys he’d grown up with in the Blackhawks system — Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien — raise the Stanley Cup just months after he was sent packing to the Wild.
"People talk to me about my Chicago days and I’m reminded that I just missed," Barker said. "I didn’t expect to get traded. Looking back now, some of it had to do with a contract thing the summer before, through no fault of mine."
He’s referring to Chicago’s much-publicized contract fiasco in July 2009, when Tallon failed to submit qualifying offers to eight restricted free agents by the league-imposed deadline, including key players such as Barker and winger Kris Versteeg. It resulted in the team overspending in order to keep them, including a three-year, US$9.25-million deal for Barker.
"I obviously would have liked to have been there for that Cup run," Barker said. "That was a special group. I’m still in touch with Buff, Andrew (Ladd), Keith, (Dave) Bolland and (Brent) Seabrook."
New surroundings didn’t spark success for the former Winnipeg Thrashers AAA midget star, who struggled over parts of two seasons in Minnesota. Blessed with mobility and a cannon of a shot, his defensive play was erratic at the best of times, and he suffered a back injury that sidelined him for 21 of the Wild’s final 22 games of the 2010-11 campaign.
In late June of 2010, the Wild bought out the last year of his contract and Barker became an unrestricted free agent. The Edmonton Oilers came calling, inking him to a one-year deal for the 2011-12 season, but ankle surgery forced him out of the lineup for all but 25 games. Then it was on to Vancouver during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, but he was a regular observer from the press box, suiting up in just 14 games for the Canucks and posting a pair of assists.
With no firm NHL offers, Barker joined two of his buddies from back home, Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd, in Astana and played 26 games that season. He returned to Chicago for a tryout in September 2014 but was released, so he returned to the KHL.
There have been no feelers from the NHL since.
"You obviously want to play in the NHL as long as you can," Barker said. "I had one really big year in the (2015-16 in Bratislava) and was named the defenceman of the year (but no offers). Obviously, I’d consider something, but you see the way the league’s trending (going younger).
"I’m aware I could go to the (American Hockey League) and try to work myself back up there, but at this point we’ve enjoyed our time over here. As far as of all the things I’ve been able to see and do, what you’re making and the easier travel, the benefits outweigh going that route. It’s crazy the ride hockey can take you on."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).