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After 25 years as emergency back-up goalie, Barney's ready for his Aces close-up

  • Author: Doyle Woody
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 7, 2016

Jeff Barney figures he has served as the emergency back-up goaltender for the Alaska Aces or their opponent in more than 100 hockey games, so he has witnessed the light-show introduction of starting lineups at Sullivan Arena scores of times.

"You watch the starters go out,'' Barney said. "I've always wondered what it'd be like.''

The 45-year-old goaltender will find out Saturday night, when the spotlight finally falls on him as the starting goaltender for the Aces in their season finale against Colorado.

Long eliminated from ECHL playoff contention and relegated to its first losing season in 13 campaigns on the circuit, Alaska decided to ring out the season by giving Barney, a Dimond High grad, his first professional playing time.

The Aces have proclaimed Saturday as "Jeff Barney Night'' on social media and in advertisements. Public address announcer Bob Lester has trumpeted the event on his morning radio show and mentioned it often during the Aces' 4-3 loss to Colorado on Wednesday night, when Barney's night received substantial play on the video screen of the scoreboard above center ice.

Until this weekend, Barney has served as what is referred to around the ECHL as an EBUG – emergency back-up goaltender. On the circuit, the phrase EBUG is as familiar as another goaltending term, like five-hole – that's the space between a goalie's leg pads, so a goal scorer might say, "I beat him five-hole.''

Teams use an EBUG – who basically just sits on the bench and opens the gate for line changes -- when a regular goaltender is injured, ill or summoned to a higher-level league and the short-handed team lacks a contracted goalie as a backup. Most teams on the 28-club ECHL circuit have an EBUG or two available in town for the home club or the visiting club. Barney's service here in his hometown extends back 25 seasons to the days of the Anchorage Aces of the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League.

By rule, an EBUG can only play if the starting goaltender is injured or otherwise unable to play. Come Saturday, the Aces say Barney will be signed to a standard player contract, which allows coach Rob Murray to start him.

"I'm excited, of course,'' Barney said Thursday. "It's cool Murr's giving me the chance. Definitely nervous.''

Barney, who turned 45 Wednesday, is executive director of Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage's winter celebration. He's also an assistant hockey coach at Service and a head coach in the Alaska All Stars youth hockey organization.

Beyond serving as an EBUG for the Aces or their opponents, he has often helped the Aces in practice. He spent the entire training camp with the club in this preseason.

"It's an accumulation of us not making the playoffs and giving Jeff an opportunity,'' Murray said. "He's always been the guy who's been our EBUG.

"He's at my beck and call, basically. There's never been a time when he's not shown up. He's a guy who has given everything he has to the Aces organization for years.''

Murray said he'll treat Barney like any other goalie. If he plays well, he'll stay in the net. If he doesn't, he'll get the hook.

"I told Murr, if I get shelled, I might 'pull' a hamstring,'' Barney said. "Murr said, 'I'll have already pulled you.' ''

Aces player-assistant coach Patrick Wellar, the veteran defenseman, said Barney is well-liked by players. He expects he and his teammates will play especially hard in front of Barney.

"He can stop pucks,'' Wellar said. "The biggest thing is, whether it's the first practice of the season or the last, he's got a great work ethic. He instantly commands respect in the room.''

Barney, who said he doesn't play much men's league hockey since a knee surgery a few years ago, loves being around the Aces.

"I enjoy being in the locker room and being with the guys,'' he said. "I get treated well. I get invited to the (annual) rookie party. I enjoy the sport so much. They make me feel part of the team.''

Barney's debut could affect the playoff situation in the ECHL's Western Conference.

Colorado and the Idaho Steelheads are tied for first place in the West Division, two points ahead of the Utah Grizzlies. All three teams have clinched playoff spots and have two games left in the regular season, but their playoff positioning is still unresolved. The division winner will earn the No. 3 playoff seed in the conference and be guaranteed home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.

Saturday's Aces-Eagles game could also affect playoff match-ups.

The ECHL said through a spokesman Thursday it had no comment until it approves Barney's contract, which it said could happen Saturday.

Idaho coach Neil Graham and Utah coach Tim Branham declined comment through team spokesmen.

Murray initially wanted to give Barney a start during Alaska's annual two-game exhibition series before the start of the regular season, but decided he needed to see Troy Redmann and Steven Summerhays, the team's two goalies at the time.

Lester floated the idea of Barney playing for real to the goalie a few weeks ago, and Barney said he initially laughed it off. The idea, though, took on legs.

Wellar said he thinks playing Barney is a great idea.

"It's kind of a throw-back,'' Wellar said. "I don't really care what anyone else thinks. We're excited, and we're happy for Barney. He deserves his chance, he's earned it.

"It's a feel-good story, and I think a lot of people in the organization can use it, and the players and fans can use it.''

Murray said he thinks Barney has earned his shot.

"It's not a charity event,'' Murray said. "He's a good goalie in his own right. He can legitimately play.''

Barney can recall a couple of times he thought he might get in an ECHL game. He accompanied the Aces on a road trip to Las Vegas in the 2005-06 season and goalie Matt Underhill was ill, but was able to play. Another time, Barney said, the Aces thought goalie Derek Gustafson might be suspended by the ECHL, but Gustafson was not disciplined.

When Barney was interviewed Thursday morning, he had not yet signed a standard contract and jokingly said he needed to conference with his "agent,'' Aces equipment manager Mike Burkhead, about terms.

"What's 10 percent of nothing?'' Burkhead chirped.

Come Saturday, pending league approval of his contract, Barney will make the transition from EBUG to starter.

He's a goalie. Says so on the license plate of his SUV, which reads: 5HOLE.

Reach Doyle Woody at dwoody@alaskadispatch.com and follow him on Twitter at @JaromirBlagr.

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