NEW YORK — Justin Bailey has been touched by hockey since Matthew Barnaby held him as a baby. As a preschooler, Bailey mimicked Rick Jeanneret while imagining victories for the Buffalo Sabres. He lived with Pat LaFontaine.
Bailey's lifelong fantasy has been to join those role models in the NHL fraternity. Thanks to enviable size, stellar skating and a glass-shattering shot, his moment has arrived.
The Williamsville native will hear his name called today at the entry draft in New Jersey, probably in the first two rounds. The 17-year-old winger will then praise his family, friends and God for helping him achieve the dream.
“Hockey's always been my passion,” Bailey said. “I'm happy it's brought me this far.”
As on most successful journeys, Bailey needed to overcome obstacles, benefit from correct decisions and receive help. He'll share in the success with his mother/confidante in the Prudential Center, teammates scattered from Buffalo to Ontario to Long Island, and a little-known father in North Carolina who is well-known to Bills fans.
“I'm proud of him because I don't think I've ever had a clear dream like he's had,” said Bailey's mother, Karen Buscaglia. “It was just a fun thing to watch him do.”
The road to the draft started early. Bailey, who plays for Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, gravitated toward hockey as a toddler. He lived in the same Williamsville apartment complex as Barnaby, Rob Ray and Michael Peca, three of the most popular Sabres at the time.
“My mom and aunt grew a little bit of a relationship with them,” said Bailey, born July 1, 1995. “Watching them and being able to see them on a personal level, I just wanted to be like them. I got into hockey and loved it ever since.”
Barnaby remains a mentor and has been skating with Bailey for 11 hours per week.
“Besides Eric Lindros, Justin Bailey probably has the best first couple strides for a big man that I've ever seen,” Barnaby said of the 6-foot-3, 186-pounder. “He probably has top-five hardest shots I've ever seen come off the stick. He's really coming into his own. He's still got a lot to learn, but the sky's the limit for this kid.”
Impartial scouts agree. Bailey is rated as the 38th-best skater in North America by NHL Central Scouting, and teams are intrigued by his potential.
“He's a high riser,” said Kevin Devine, the Sabres' director of amateur scouting. “Most teams have him going somewhere in the second round. He's a big kid that works very hard, needs to fill out his frame, get adjusted to the Canadian game a little more, get a little bit more physical. He's got lots of potential.”
Bailey's status as a prospect has grown exponentially during the past two years. It started with a decision to move into LaFontaine's home on Long Island.
The Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League picked Bailey 11th overall in their 2011 draft, and he made the team. Buscaglia thought the 15-year-old was still too much of a kid to move halfway across the country. Ken Martin, an NHL diversity executive and mutual friend of Buscaglia and LaFontaine, put the sides in touch with a different plan.
Soon, Bailey was living in LaFontaine's home and playing for a team coached by the Hockey Hall of Famer and fellow NHL alum Steve Webb.
“He welcomed me with open arms into his home and onto his team,” Bailey said. “The way that he handled everything, I give him a lot of thanks for that.
“There were a lot of things on the mental side of the game, getting to know myself more as a player. Just the way we would watch hockey and the way he would break down the games was something special.”
LaFontaine taught Bailey about nutrition and off-ice preparation. Webb taught him how to control his emotions on the ice so he wouldn't burn out during the first period. Together, they showed Bailey how to be a responsible teen.
“He came out of Long Island learning so much more than just hockey,” Buscaglia said.
The Long Island squad won the under-16 national championship, and Bailey caught the eye of Kitchener coach Steve Spott. Though Bailey had already committed to attend Michigan State, Spott convinced him to make a drive to Kitchener and check things out.
Bailey was hooked on the organization and the thought of developing in junior hockey. He recorded 17 goals and 36 points in 57 games this season while getting accustomed to the huge jump from travel hockey to Canada's top circuit.
“I saw the development right from the start of the career to where he was in the playoffs,” Barnaby said. “Because it was such a veteran-laden team, there wasn't much pressure put on him. They were able to groom him the right way. Sometimes you aren't put in a position to succeed, and he certainly was put in that by his coach up there.”
Spott and men such as LaFontaine, Barnaby and especially Buscaglia's stepfather, Bob Tronolone, fill a special place in Bailey's world – one that lacks an active father.
His dad is Carlton Bailey, who played linebacker for the Bills from 1988 to '92. Justin was born while the football player was transitioning from the New York Giants to the Carolina Panthers. Carlton began a life in Charlotte while Buscaglia decided on Western New York.
“I grew up on my mom's side of the family, so I don't have a ton of contact with my dad,” Justin said. “It's more during birthdays or holidays, but when we do talk, he does try to get his two cents in. They usually are pretty lengthy when he tries to get in those lessons that maybe he didn't give to me as a kid.”
They recently had a discussion about what it takes to be a professional athlete.
“It's great to be able to see that his goals and dreams have been able to come true,” Carlton Bailey said by phone from North Carolina. “Many people spend the large majority of their lives and never really have the chance to achieve the dreams that they do have.
“The most important thing is to be able to continue to work hard, to be disciplined, to be able to really play the game with passion like he did years ago when he was playing in the snow playing for the Sabres.”
Carlton is listed in Justin's hockey bios, which usually leads to questions for the son about his dad. Justin handles the inquiries well despite the sensitive situation.
“Our relationship, everybody goes through different things, and when I'm called upon, I'm always going to be here,” Carlton said. “I love him no matter what. I think sometimes as men we may not understand how to express that. It's not always the most masculine thing to be able to do. All of us choose different ways to be able to express our love, but the bottom line is that the love is always going to be there.”
Justin Bailey's affection for his mom and God is always on display. He praises her for sacrifices such as 5 a.m. rides to practice and using tax refunds to pay for ice time.
“She's everything to me, and I know I'm everything to her,” Bailey said. “The hard work that she put in really paid off. Whenever things get tough, I think of my family and back to God, as well, to keep me going and to keep me strong.”
Buscaglia bought her only child a bracelet to wear when he was trying out for Indiana. It read, “When in doubt: Pray.” He still wears an identical one every day.
Today, there should be no doubts. Prayers will be answered. His dream of joining an NHL team will come true.
“It's amazing to look back,” Bailey said.
“Each transition just seemed to click,” Buscaglia added. “It was like puzzle pieces fitting together. I look at him and see such maturity both in his game and as a person. I couldn't be more thankful.”