Sports feature

Former NHL Tough Guy Matthew Barnaby Remains Unfiltered

When Ottawa’s Matthew Barnaby was a junior player, he was amazing. He once scored 111 points in a single season, which was an incredible accomplishment since he also had 448 penalty minutes that same year. 

With that much time in the penalty box, how in the world did Barnaby find the time to score that much?

Suffice it to say, the guy wasn’t much fun to play against. Barnaby was a buzzsaw who would give it to opponents on the scoreboard, with his fists, or a loud barrage of well-timed, unfiltered insults. He did his best to continue that throughout his ornery 14-year NHL career in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, New York, Colorado, Chicago, and Dallas. 

When all the smoke had cleared after 834 career games, Barnaby had posted 2,562 penalty minutes. Only 17 tough guys in NHL history have posted more.

Since his final game in 2007, Barnaby has kept busy with family, broadcasting, and podcasting. He even wrote a book just over a year ago and, like his podcast, it’s called “Unfiltered,” which is how Barnaby, now 50, has lived his entire life.

“I’m never not going to be me, “Barnaby said. “That’s just who I am. My friends and family know that if you ask my opinion, I’m going to give it. And I don’t ever worry about, ‘Oh my god, maybe you’re not gonna get this job or that job because you said something people don’t like.’”

Whether on the ice or behind the microphone, Barnaby is a talker, brimming with energy, and speaks from the heart. So, his next career path seems like it’ll be a perfect fit.

Photography by Nicolai Gregory


“I always said when I retired that I wanted to play golf and have beers with the boys every day,” Barnaby said. “But that’s just not me. I love golf. I don’t mind the odd beer. But I’ve got to stay busy. So, I’m kind of transitioning into motivational speaking for companies. 

“I just think I have a lot of experiences that I’d love to share. And I’m very comfortable in front of people and telling my story – the good and the bad – because there are a lot of ups and downs in life. It’s gratifying to be able to share my experiences and hopefully motivate people to be better in their everyday lives.”

That’s a far cry from Barnaby’s NHL image back in the day when he was so often motivated to punch people in the face. But that’s how it was back then, with tough customers waiting for him in every NHL market. 

“The hardest time was the day before and the afternoon before games,” Barnaby recalls. “You’re playing Toronto, and they have Tie Domi, Ken Baumgartner, and Nick Kypreos. You roll into Detroit, and they have Joey Kocur and Bob Probert. Roll into Philadelphia, and they have Donald Brashear. And the list goes on. Every team had a guy that literally could break your jaw or your orbital bone or give you a concussion, which I had many. It’s not a lot of fun to have to go to work knowing that could happen.

“But once I walked into that locker room, I became a different personality. It’s almost like I had an alter ego. And once I got on the ice, I didn’t think about it. I wasn’t nervous. Once I got into it, I loved defending my teammates. I loved the gratification of hearing the crowd chant your name or applaud you and cheer for you.”

If you ever wondered why Barnaby used to smile, laugh, and chirp through so many of his NHL fights, it wasn’t because he was having a great time. It was a strategy to throw his much bigger opponents off their game.

“They were so pissed off that they couldn’t hurt me,” Barnaby recalled. “And it was more of a mind games thing than anything, trying to make it look like you’re this crazy man – the sicko that loves to get hit. No one loves to get hit. But I wanted to trick them into doing something that they weren’t comfortable doing so I could have the upper hand. Because most of the guys I fought were 50 pounds heavier than I was.”

Barnaby feels fortunate that he wasn’t exclusively a fighter, like the Rob Rays or Tony Twists, or in Ottawa, Brian McGrattan or Dennis Vial. He was more like Chris Neil, who could also play the game. As a result, he didn’t have to worry about his job if he didn’t fight for five or ten games. Not that fighting droughts like that happened very often.

Still, Barnaby knew that if you were going to be public enemy number one, you had to understand the soldiers were coming at some point, and you had better be ready. Doing that 82 times a year can be a grind.

“Everyone’s always ready to play on a Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada,” Barnaby said. “But are you ready to play in Anaheim on a Tuesday night? 

“That’s the same line I used on (former Senators GM) Pierre Dorion after he drafted Brady Tkachuk. You don’t have to worry about your team being dead because Tkachuk is the kind of guy who’s going to drag the team into a fight. And he might not go into the game looking for a fight because he’s the captain and arguably their best player, but he’ll always be ready.”

Barnaby says he strongly believes in new Ottawa GM Steve Staios.

“I love Stevie Staios,” Barnaby said. “I’ve known him for years and played against him. He’s very smart and analytical. He has a little bit of everything you need to be a great manager.”

As for the team, with its core locked up for years, Barnaby believes it will be an excellent team that will soon have a chance at winning a Stanley Cup. 

“Now it’s about them learning how to win on a nightly basis,” Barnaby said. “I think that’s the big difference between average teams and great teams. The Detroits and New Jerseys of my era went out and expected to win. And if you go in expecting to win – not hoping to win – that’s the mindset you need to be successful.”

Barnaby remains full of fire and energy at age 50, and whether it’s podcasting, writing books, or motivational speaking, he obviously has the winning mindset he needs to be successful in those ventures as well.

By Steve Warne


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