Emily Barber’s exposure to hockey was almost immediate.
Nearly every night, her hometown Atlanta Thrashers would find their way into the Barber household and her father, Scott, would sport an old-school hockey jersey in support. Up until Emily was a 3-year-old, she would be intrigued by the fast-paced action on the ice, but never had specific reactions.
That was until a young Barber spotted a book on her father’s bookshelf titled “The Greatest Goalies in the NHL.” It became her nightly bedtime story.
“She always wanted to be a goalie,” Scott said of his daughter, who now starts as goalkeeper for the Georgia Ice Dawgs, UGA’s club hockey team.
Nearly a year after discovering her dad’s book, Emily and her brother Cameron traveled with their father to see their first live action on the ice. UGA’s hockey team was holding an alumni game in 2003 and Scott, a member of the inaugural group in 1986, was invited to participate.
After the action, Emily and Cameron were placed in their father’s arms and took to the ice for the first time. Scott glided around the rink with his children in hand and it was then Emily realized a dream.
“I want to actually learn how to do this,” Emily told her parents as they headed home.
Fourteen years later, Emily takes the ice in her own Georgia hockey uniform as a freshman goalkeeper.
The ice rink became like a second home to the Barber family.
After spending some time becoming acclimated to the rink, both of the Barber siblings caught on quickly. Cameron didn’t feel as if hockey was the right fit, but Emily was all in.
Shortly after, Emily got her chance to compete on an in-house league team. At 7 years old, Emily started off as a defender.
Emily was always one of few — if not the only — female athletes on the team.
Once an opposing attacker was on a breakaway toward the goalie and Emily raced down the ice to stop him. She was successful, but her opposing number didn’t think it possible.
“You can’t do that, you’re a girl,” a young boy screamed after the play.
It gave Emily a boost of confidence, and it soon prompted a move to her desired position — being the last line of defense.
“I couldn’t stop looking at it without wanting to be in the net,” said Barber.
However, that transition didn’t go too smoothly early on. Emily had moved up the ranks and became a member of the Atlanta Junior Knights travel team.
A 9-year-old Barber made her debut at the next level with plenty of eyes on her from family members. In the first five minutes of the game, the opponent had tallied five goals on five shots.
“I was pretty worried she was going to toss in the towel at that point — such a disheartening start for such a young kid,” said Knights’ head coach Tim Kitagawa, who coached Emily leading up to her collegiate tenure with Georgia.
Kitagawa was concerned that tears and resignation may soon come, and that he would be without a goalie. So he called a timeout to give Emily a moment to reorient herself.
“Well, I guess I’ve got some work to do,” Emily said to Kitagawa.
As Emily’s level of competition continued to evolve, the more she realized that adjustments would have to be made due to her stature.
When Scott and Emily sat down to watch NHL games, they noticed mammoth-sized goalkeepers. She had looked up to Marc-Andre Fleury, who stood at 6-foot-2, and Pekka Rinne , who stands as one of the league’s tallest at 6-foot-5.
Emily is 5-foot-4, so she must utilize a different set of skill sets in order to be productive on the ice. But it has been done before, especially by her idol Manon Rheaume.
Rheaume, the lone female to play in the NHL, took her 5-foot-7 frame and played in an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993.
“They try to get the biggest guy they can in the net, (but with me there’s) not a lot mass to move around,” Emily said. “I have to be farther out, which I consider an advantage because I’m able to change my position.”
With the size serving mainly as a disadvantage, Emily has had to put in endless amounts of work and has been advised by her father to “put another arrow in your quiver” and take advice from anyone possible. And she has, through work with former Nashville Predators’ goaltender coach Mitch Korn and former Atlanta Flames’ goaltender Dan Bouchard.
A prime opportunity
Emily was set to graduate high school at Centennial, but played on a hockey team comprised of students from Lassiter and Walton due to a lack of programs in Georgia.
She had been playing on boys’ teams for nearly 14 years and was weighing her options to play at the collegiate level. A number of opportunities came her way, including a chance to play on an all-girls team at Miami (Ohio), which had just won a national championship.
But with the opportunity to follow in her father’s legacy and stay close to home, Emily opted to take a look at Georgia’s club team and participate in a tryout outside The Classic Center.
Georgia needed a goaltender as it didn’t have one on the roster at the time, and the lone concern of head coach Rick Emmett was whether she was going to be intimidated or overwhelmed by the situation.
“A 16-year-old shot is way different than a 25-year-old shot,” Emily thought in her first action against college-aged athletes.
However, that wasn’t the case as Emily was one of three goalies to make the Bulldogs’ roster and finds herself in a starting role months later.
“It was great for us to stumble upon her,” Emmett said.
A group of big brothers
Most goalies are erratic, according to Emmett, but Emily carries a calm demeanor which allows for smoother development. Georgia has a number of veteran players on its defensive front, and they make a concerted effort to relieve her from being faced with too many opportunities.
But when an opposing attacker comes racing down the ice, it’s all about mindset for Emily as she reads her opponent’s tendencies and surveys whether there are other pass options.
“It’s one of the craziest moments because your mindset can determine save or goal,” she said. “It’s such a mind game.”
Added senior defender Drew Holcombe: “She’s saved us in a lot of situations. She’s always dialed in, so when the guys look to her to see if she’s panicking in certain situations, she never is.”
It also marks another first for Emily — being in the same locker room with her teammates. It served as another adjustment period, but her newest peers have created the best atmosphere throughout her playing career.
“It’s a big brother mentality and it’s an interesting dynamic,” Emmett said. “They want to be more protective of her for sure, and it transcends onto the ice.”
The next chapter of playing on the ice has been a moment that makes the Barber family proud.
When Scott enters the arena on game day and is perched behind his daughter’s net — sometimes sporting his old Bulldogs’ uniform from 30 years ago — he remembers where those moments all began, but from a different perspective.
“She’s blazing her own trail,” Scott said. “It’s neat to see her as the next Barber legacy, but she’s her own woman on a mission.”