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RPI Volunteer Coach a Proven Winner

Last Year's Co-captain Now Totes a Whistle

By Jon Paul Morosi

Albany Times Union, February 4, 2005

TROY - In these locked-out days, the ECAC Hockey League has welcomed a parade of hockey notables to its practices: Ken Hitchcock at Princeton, Robert Esche at Colgate, Joe Nieuwendyk at Cornell.

The newest member of RPI's coaching staff is a professional, too, even though he's never earned his paychecks at the rink.

Ben Barr, last season's curly-haired co-captain, has returned to Houston Field House as a volunteer assistant coach. George Morrison, a former University of Denver All-American, served in that capacity for one and a half seasons, but left after Thanksgiving to concentrate on his business.

Barr began in early January and traveled with the team to Dartmouth and Vermont last weekend. With top assistant Frank Bretti away recruiting this week, Barr has been a valuable presence at practices leading up to Saturday's home date with Holy Cross.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Barr, 23. "I missed it the few months I was away. When you go into the real world, the fun and games are kind of over. So it's good to be back and lend a helping hand."

A native of Faribault, Minn., Barr played prep hockey with River Rats star Zach Parise. But rather than return to the Midwest, he remained in the area after graduation to enter a management training program with HSBC.

Barr had thought he would transfer to the company's Buffalo headquarters in January. But when that was delayed until the summer, Barr was eager to fill the Engineers' volunteer vacancy.

The transition has been unique. He has a whistle during practices, but remains a close friend to many players. He's a hockey hybrid - half teammate, half coach.

Five players, including 24-year-old co-captain Nick Economakos, are older than him. Cody Wojdyla is almost 25. Imagine their responses when he tells them to line up for sprints.

He's the brunt of some ribbing.

"That comes with the territory," Economakos said. "We let him know he wasn't any good."

Of course, everyone knows better. Barr was a coach's dream and popular in the dressing room. Listed in your program at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Barr wasn't the most gifted scorer (25 goals in 140 games). But the steady center's stockpile of awards - team most valuable player, coach's award (twice), academic all-conference - smacks of an inspiring work ethic.

His definitive moment came in Game 2 of a 2003 ECAC playoff series at Union. He turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2, series-clinching victory with two short-handed goals on the same power play.

Daily contact with the purveyor of such heroics - which, it should be noted, came at the end of an 11th-place season - is heartening for these Engineers, also in 11th place (by winning percentage).

"He brings back memories of winning," said goaltender Andrew Martin. "We can stop and talk to him like a peer, but at the same time he's a coach. He's in a perfect spot."

Players return: Economakos and fellow seniors Matt McNeely and Blake Pickett have returned to practice and will be available Saturday. They were suspended last weekend for breaking an athletic department rule against alcohol consumption on school-funded road trips.

Economakos said he does not feel pressure to make up for lost time. "It's just exciting to be part of the team," he said Thursday. "Last weekend, we didn't have the chance to help our team win. Now, it's in our control."

Head coach Dan Fridgen expects them to duplicate their efforts from a historic sweep of Clarkson and St. Lawrence two weeks ago. "They're going to provide leadership and contribute on the ice," Fridgen said.