Matthew Barnaby: If I can't fight, I can't play!

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Matthew Barnaby: "If I can't fight, I can't play"

Stars' Barnaby still has fight in him

By MIKE HEIKA / The Dallas Morning News

Matthew Barnaby isn't scared by much.

At 6-0, 189 pounds relatively small by hockey fighter standards Barnaby has had to tread into battle with men six inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. And he has always done so willingly, usually with a diabolic cackle and an entertainer's style. Stars/NHL

But a few months back, Barnaby got scared. In the span of eight fights, he experienced blurred vision in his left eye for a few minutes the first time, then longer, and finally for 45 minutes in his last brawl.

Barnaby hasn't played since a fight Jan. 9 against Phoenix's Josh Gratton and was told he needed to stop fighting.

Stop fighting? He might as well stop living.

"The doctors gave me a pretty good checkup," said Barnaby, who will turn 34 in May. "And they told me that if I fought again, there was a very good chance this would happen again."

Barnaby has had concussions before, including one that put him out for more than a month. But he has never been told to stop fighting. And he has never been told to stop playing.

"If I can't fight," he said recently, "I can't play."

Barnaby signed a one-year contract with the Stars last summer and is an enforcer/agitator. He sticks up for his teammates, and he tries to get under the skin of the opposition.

In both situations, he is called upon to drop the gloves. He ranks 13th in NHL history with 240 fighting majors. Having played 834 regular-season games, he is among the top 10 in fights per game at .287. He has played in only 39 games this season, but his 11 fights rank 10th in the league.

"I'm very proud of what I've done in my career, the fact I have 300 points and have done more than just fight," Barnaby said. "But it's part of who I am and what I do out there."

Barnaby has gone through several neurological tests and said he now understands why professional sports are treating concussions with such care.

In one of the tests he took after his latest concussion, he couldn't recall information provided to him just moments earlier such as what number appeared within a certain shape.

"You sit there and look at it and think, 'I know that. I know that,' but your brain just won't recall it," he said. "It can be kind of alarming."

So Barnaby had to start thinking about the end of his career. He talked to his wife, Christine. He spent time with son Matthew and daughter Taylor. He got away from the rink for a little while.

"And I just missed it," he said. "I missed it a whole lot."

He got clearance from his doctor to start working out, and he started clearing all of his tests. He is skating in practice with the Stars but isn't allowed to participate in contact drills. He knows there are only 17 games remaining in the regular season, but he keeps working.

"You just never know what might happen," Barnaby said. "You do everything you can to give yourself a chance to play, and then you let the rest take care of itself."

Would he play with the knowledge he couldn't fight? Could he get into a playoff game, in which almost nobody fights? He'd first have to get clearance from his doctors in New York. Then he'd have to get the OK from coach Dave Tippett to find a spot in the lineup.

"We're so far away from that right now," Tippett said. "Matthew is just taking it step by step."

Even Barnaby, who has seven goals, 15 assists and is plus-5 in 62 playoff games, said it would be a long shot.

"You look at the players that are in, and they're all working hard," he said. "First, I have to get clearance, and then I have to make them believe that I can help them."

That's a hard dream to keep alive. But in making the effort, Barnaby believes he can help the Stars. He is a lively voice on the practice ice and in the locker room, and he continues to push his teammates to get better.

"We got him because of leadership and his character, and he's showing that now," Tippett said of Barnaby's presence. "Matthew is a real positive influence on all of us."

If the final line of Barnaby's career reads 834 games, he can live with that. But that doesn't mean he has to stop his story.

"I've never been on a Stanley Cup winning team, and that's something I'd really like to be a part of," Barnaby said. "I still believe I have that chance here."

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