Why would Kenai River Brown Bears forward Trey LaBarge be fine with leaving the United States Hockey League, the best junior league in America, to come to the North American Hockey League, which is the second best in this country?
The answers lie in a 2002 study conducted by USA Hockey during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the Tier I Youth National Championships. The best players at both events — think Joe Sakic, Mike Modano, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise — handled the puck for about 1 minute, 6 seconds.
That explains why LaBarge was fine with the Madison (Wisconsin) Capitals of the USHL trading him to the Bears of the NAHL in early December.
“I didn’t fit in well with the organization and what coach wanted from me,” LaBarge said. “I was looking for more playing time so I could get more looks from colleges.
“I knew I could play a bigger role than I was playing there.”
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said the Bears were looking for a player that could score goals, and LaBarge has delivered. He has five goals and three assists in 12 games.
“Trey is a great player that has not played a ton,” Petrich said. “He couldn’t find the right spot in the USHL. What I always tell kids is, ‘Do you want to wear a sweater more than a suit jacket?’”
The coach said there is simply no substitute for game time for a developing player, because even in a full game, even the best players get just over a minute with the puck.
“You can have the best practices and the best skills coach,” Petrich said. “You still have to touch the puck in a game, you still have to learn to read and react in a game.”
The coach added that this is a good time of the year to be in the NAHL for college looks, because 80 to 90 percent of those on USHL rosters have Division I commitments by the middle of October.
“We still have a lot of uncommitted players,” Petrich said. “They can come and watch all of those players, plus watch four young guys for two or three years down the road.”
LaBarge, a 20-year-old with one year of junior eligibility left after this season, said the decision to leave Madison was tough because he has roots in the area.
“I played with their youth organization when I was younger,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and family in Madison. It was definitely hard on my family, but I feel I made the right decision.”
LaBarge, the son of Barb and Troy LaBarge of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, was born and raised in Madison. He got his love of hockey from his grandfather, who used to take him to Chicago Blackhawks games.
For high school, the LaBarges moved to Hudson, Wisconsin, where Trey played for Hudson High School and then Team Wisconsin before and after the high school season. He credited Team Wisconsin, a Midget AAA team, for honing his game for the top levels.
Late in his junior year of high school, LaBarge tore his anterior cruciate ligament in May playing something called Nerf wars. The game was organized by a friend and had 50 teams of five, with a $3,000 award for first place.
The idea is not to get shot by Nerf guns. Under attack in a Walmart parking lot, LaBarge stopped and his knee buckled.
“When I tell people I tore my ACL, they always expect some hockey story,” LaBarge said. “I have to tell them it happened during Nerf wars.”
LaBarge couldn’t play with Team Wisconsin due to the injury, but he caught on with the Capitols 18U team, then played with the Capitols USHL squad last season and this season before the trade.
While LaBarge has made the tough decision to come to the NAHL, the hockey world in general still has not decided if he is a defenseman or forward. He played forward at the beginning of this season for the Capitols before getting moved to defense due to injuries.
The Brown Bears are loaded with quality defensemen but are second last in the league in goals, so now LaBarge is back at forward.
“I absolutely enjoy him,” Petrich said. “When he got here, he told me, ‘Coach, let me know what you need me to do and I’ll do it.’”
LaBarge, who is 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, said pleasing coaches is the top priority, but he also said he prefers using his physicality, skating and puck-moving abilities as a defenseman. He said colleges are looking at him for both positions.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said. “I’m 20 years old and I still could be a defenseman or a forward.”
Petrich and LaBarge agree playing both positions helps make him a smarter and more versatile player. Petrich said LaBarge is a complete goal scorer, getting goals jabbing at a goalie’s pads, sniping from outside or tipping the puck in the net.
“It’s helped me understand what forwards and defensemen are trying to do,” LaBarge said.
The billet son of Sam and Mandy Clyde of Soldotna has made the adjustment to living far from home as quickly as he can adjust to playing different positions on the ice.
“I love the people up here,” LaBarge said. “I love the billets and I love the landscape. It’s nice getting away from the city. The home games also have a nice atmosphere.”
He said he’s on the right track to finding a college — and a position.
“Now that I’m getting more playing time, I’m getting more looks from colleges and that’s every encouraging,” he said. “I’m planning on settling in, and hopefully a college commitment comes with it.”