Justin Barron. Photo: Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Mooseheads
Recovered from surgery and recently picked in the NHL draft, Mooseheads captain Justin Barron has unfinished business in Halifax before he becomes the latest Nova Scotian to join the Colorado Avalanche
ustin Barron was only four years old when he first took to the ice on the backyard rink his father made to learn how to skate alongside his older brother Morgan.
The Halifax Mooseheads defenceman has come a long way since then, a remarkable hockey journey without having to leave home. Earlier this month, he realized his dream: being drafted (25th overall) by an NHL team.
“Leading up to it, there’s a lot of excitement… with the draft pushed back so long, the excitement gets built up,” he says. “I also think there were some nerves, but when you hear your name called, it’s almost as if it’s a bit of a blur. You forget everything that you have been thinking about beforehand. It’s just a lot of excitement and joy getting drafted by Colorado.”
In a typical year, Barron would be sitting in the stands of an NHL rink with dozens of other people waiting to hear his name called, cross the stage to shake hands, put on his new team’s sweater, and pose for a photo.
The pandemic shifted plans but the defenceman savoured this different opportunity. “It was still super special and unique,” he explains. “Being at home with my parents, when you hear your name called, it’s a lot of excitement… They’ve been huge supporters of mine and given me every opportunity to play this sport… to spend that moment with them is just super special.”
The first call after his selection was from Avalanche vice-president/general manager Joe Sakic. The former NHL star, Stanley Cup winner, and Olympic gold medallist welcomed Barron to the team.
Avalanche defencemen Cale Makar and Samuel Girard also sent greetings by text. However, Barron began to realize the magnitude of what happened when a text message came from former Mooseheads captain, current Avalanche center, and fellow Haligonian Nathan MacKinnon.
“It’s special getting to grow up, watch him and all his success with the Mooseheads and now in Colorado he’s a huge part of that team,” Barron says. “Just hearing it from him welcoming you to the Avalanche is pretty special and that’s when it starts to sink in a little bit.”
Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell believes Barron will be a good fit with Colorado’s defensive system. The former NHL defenceman finished his playing career with the team and believes the 18-year-old is ready.
“You look at the Avalanche defence right now; they’ve done a good job building a terrific core of solid, young, skilled defencemen,” he says. “Adding Justin to that group is going to make them a Stanley Cup contender in the next few years: he’s big, strong, and an incredible skater, shoots and passes like a pro. He’s the kind of player if you’re protecting a lead, you have him on the ice the last minute of the game, protecting that lead. If you need a goal, he’s also a guy you lean on for the offensive side of his game as well. Consistently plays the same game and a very dependable player.”
The Avalanche’s selection extends two pipelines. One is the connection with Mooseheads alumni who have landed with the club, including J.S. Giguere, Alex Tanguay, and MacKinnon. Barron is the 12th Mooseheads player drafted in the NHL and the third taken in the first round. He’s now one of five Nova Scotians within the Avalanche organization. Matt Stienburg, Ryan Graves, and Shane Bowers join MacKinnon to round out the group.
“Having the five Nova Scotians in one organization is pretty cool…just getting the possible chance to play with four other guys from Nova Scotia in one team would be something pretty exciting and special,” he says. “Often Nova Scotia gets a little bit overlooked when it comes to hockey and producing players. Nova Scotia is producing NHL draft picks and great players year after year. It goes to show the development and the competition in this area is continuing to grow. I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else and play hockey anywhere else.”
Russell credits a strong Avalanche scouting team with helping Nova Scotian players find their path to the big leagues. “It’s a little bit of luck that the players they are looking for are Nova Scotian guys,” he says. “You look at those five players: they’re all tremendously good, hard-working, and good people, so those are three great attributes when you are trying to pick a hockey team. You want to surround yourself with that and the bonus is they are all tremendously skilled as well.”
Being drafted is one of the many silver linings for Barron after experiencing a challenging year. Last December, his season ended prematurely due to a blood clot. On Sept. 18, Barron underwent corrective surgery. The recovery has been going well, he says, crediting the Mooseheads organization, namely athletic therapist Robin Hunter and strength and conditioning coach Chris Pierce.
“They’ve been taking care of me; I’ve been skating every day and going to the gym,” he says. “Having to watch your team play in their home opener while I am on the couch and quarantine for two weeks, that’s hard, but there’s a long season ahead of us. I am happy to be back with the team now and hopefully playing real soon.”
During his recovery, the defenceman didn’t have to look far for inspiration. His older brother Morgan has been a role model for most of his life. Morgan took a different route to the NHL, going undrafted in the QMJHL, landing a scholarship at Cornell University, and signing with the NHL’s New York Rangers in the summer. While Barron was dealing with the blood clot, a shoulder injury sidelined Morgan during his NHL draft year.
“I’ve been able to see first-hand all of his hard work, dedication, and how it can pay off,” Barron says. ‘He’s another guy that’s gone through some adversity. Having him go through the same thing as me last year was helpful…[he] was the first person telling me ‘you’re going to get through this and you’re going to come out stronger than ever, just stay positive and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.'”
Barron has learned that resiliency is key. “It’s important that you got to keep working at it, and you just got to know that their brighter days ahead,” he says. “You have to push through it, keep battling and keep going forward… It’s important to stay positive.”
When he returns to the lineup, he has something to look forward to being drafted by the Avalanche. Before the Mooseheads regular season began, head coach J.J. Daigneault named him team captain.
“It’s a huge honour but I know it’s a little bit extra special for me being a hometown kid,” he says. “Being a leader, it’s someone that leads by example whether it’s on or off the ice or away from the rink, someone that’s professional, has the best interests for the team at their heart, and a guy you can go talk to the younger guys and show the way a little bit.”
Playing in the Halifax Hawks organization for a significant part of his life, Barron honed his skills at the novice, peewee, and bantam levels. During peewee, he was part of the Halifax Junior Mooseheads team that earned the right to compete in the prestigious Quebec Pee Wee International tournament.
He moved to the Halifax McDonald’s for one season before the Mooseheads drafted him in the 1st round (13th overall) in the 2017 QMJHL draft. In his four seasons with the Mooseheads, he tallied 97 points (17 goals and 80 assists) in 186 regular and postseason games.
“Putting on the Mooseheads’ jersey is one thing, but then showing up to camp and meeting all the guys was another thing,” he recalls. “It was a lot of excitement, a lot of joy. It’s one of those things a lot of kids from around here grew up going to Moosehead games, and you dream about being a Moosehead one day. The way everything worked out, it was pretty close to perfect.”
Despite the injury, Barron hasn’t lost a step. “He looks like a million bucks on the ice,” Russell says. “He’s just such an important part to the team because he’s our off-ice leader, wonderful person, smart person, respected and liked by all his teammates and by his coaching staff. But he’s also the best player on our team. He’s played a lot of minutes, does a lot for us on the ice, probably does a lot more for us off the ice.”
With his return on the ice imminent, Barron is hungry to lead the Mooseheads to a successful season.
After being so close to winning both the QMJHL championship and Memorial Cup (the national championship) in 2019, Barron has unfinished Halifax business but is thinking about his future at the same time.
“There’s a lot of hard work to be put in ahead of me to make it to the NHL and get to the next level, but I’m excited, and it’s part of the journey,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it and willing to put that work in… We’ll see where it takes me.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.