Barrasso deserves a place in Penguins' hall of fame

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Ashley Barrasso is doing well as a junior at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass.

That seems like the only appropriate place to start a column on former Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso. If you are old enough, you probably remember that his daughter twice has beaten cancer, once as a toddler very much in the public spotlight when he was playing here in the late 1980s and again as a teenager in 2000. The best news you'll read on these pages this morning is that she is, by all accounts, looking at living a long and happy life.

Now, on to Ms. Barrasso's old man.

Before we get to the main point -- that the Penguins need to right a wrong and put Barrasso in their Hall of Fame -- a brief update:

Barrasso, who retired from the NHL in '03 with 369 wins, still the 13th-best total in league history, is back in hockey. He joined the Carolina Hurricanes as their director of goalie development last month and is working with the young goalies in their minor-league system.

The way the story goes, Barrasso grew tired of the long winters on Cape Cod and decided to move his family back to Raleigh, N.C., where he had played for the Hurricanes in the 2001-02 season. He was out running one day this past summer, bumped into Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford, who was walking his dog, and the next thing you know ...

Working with young goaltenders seems like a curious job for Barrasso, 42, who was known for being tough on his young backups. Just ask former Penguins goalies Patrick Lalime and Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

"Tom's been great. He's brought a real passion to the job," said Ron Francis.

Yes, that Ron Francis.

Barrasso's former teammate on the Penguins' Stanley Cup-winning teams in '91 and '92 was promoted to assistant general manager with the Hurricanes earlier this month and is expected back in town Friday night when they play the Penguins at Mellon Arena. It's safe to say Francis, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Nov. 12, put in a good word for Barrasso with Rutherford.

"I always admired the way Tom played goal," Francis said. "To have him in a position to pass that on to our young guys is really great ...

"I don't think there's any way we would have won those two Cups without him."

That makes two of us.

That's why Barrasso has to be in the Penguins Hall of Fame. Mario Lemieux, Joe Mullen and Ulf Samuelsson already are in from their Cup teams. Barrasso should be next.

People forget how great the man was under pressure in the early '90s. He had a 12-7 record and 2.60 goals against average in the '91 playoffs and was 16-5 with a 2.82 goals against average in '92. He could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy either season as MVP of the playoffs, but it went both times to the incomparable Lemieux, who had two advantages over Barrasso; he was an offensive star and he was Canadian.

You can tell me it was easy to play in the net on those fabulous Penguins teams because they scored so many goals. I will tell you that it wasn't always so easy because those teams didn't always think defense first. Regardless, Barrasso was good enough to win 14 consecutive playoff games, still an NHL record.

It's fair to argue the trade that brought Barrasso to Pittsburgh from the Buffalo Sabres in '88 for defenseman Doug Bodger and winger Darrin Shannon was the greatest heist in Penguins history.

But Barrasso never received his just due here because he had a prickly relationship with the local media. One reason was his thin skin, probably the thinnest of any athlete to play here. But there was more to it, Francis said. It goes back to a bar incident at a team party after the '94 season. "Tom wasn't even there when it happened and he became the lead villain," Francis said. "I think that was something that really frustrated him."

Through a Hurricanes spokesman, Barrasso declined a request to be interviewed for this column. That came as no surprise.

Barrasso's relationship with Penguins fans also soured after he had a series of injuries and his performance slipped. He'll never live down allowing a goal from the blue line by the Florida Panthers' Tom Fitzgerald in the third period of Game 7 of the '96 Eastern Conference final. Things got so bad that, toward the end, before Barrasso was sent to the Ottawa Senators at the '00 trade deadline, the only nights he was cheered was when his name was announced as a scratch.

That's probably why Penguins management is hesitant to bring Barrasso back and give him the franchise's greatest honor. Who wants to throw a big party and have the guest of honor booed? But that kind of thinking underestimates the intelligence of Penguins fans. They are a forgiving bunch and, beyond that, they appreciate greatness. They would stand and cheer Barrasso's induction into the team's Hall of Fame because they know the truth. He was nothing if not great here for a long time.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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