Jason Labarbera with wife Kodette and sons Easton, left, and Ryder.
For Jason Labarbera the one thing his autistic son needed was routine, and he couldn't give it to him.
The email arrived after the first day of school. Kodette LaBarbera sank into the couch to read it. It had been a milestone morning for her and her husband, Jason, the longtime NHL goalie, who was in his fourth and final season as a Phoenix Coyote. It was September 2012, and the couple had sent their first born, three-and-a-half-year-old Ryder, to his very first day of class. What was a happy occasion quickly soured. Kodette recoiled as she scanned the note in her living room that night, a tersely worded directive from an official at Ryder’s new school that the boy had already been considered a poor fit. “They basically told us,” she said, “that Ryder was a freak and he wasn’t welcome back, that there was something wrong with him, that we should get him to a doctor.” Ryder had always faced unique challenges in life.
As a toddler, he was a whiz at spelling, not merely marking out words like cat and dog, but requiring no counsel on more advanced ones, like chicken or ladder or tractor. But he had trouble with other things, those that seemed simpler. His social skills lagged. He was timid. By his first day of school, he was largely non-verbal. In their hearts, Kodette and Jason knew Ryder was unlike other children, though to be told so bluntly of their boy’s dismissal from school after just one day hurt them deeply. Was Ryder a freak? No, he was not. Not at all. What followed were countless tests, visits with specialists, and paperwork – mountains of forms and files to be completed before Ryder’s diagnosis could be revealed.
But the sting of the email never truly left the boy’s parents. Emotion still grips Kodette as she recalls the memory. Her voice quakes, loses its tone in places. “That was heartbreaking,” she said. “In my eyes, Ryder has always been perfect. He’s still perfect. He’s the most amazing little person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Jason and Kodette LaBarbera met in Calgary in 2006 and were married in 2009. For years, the couple followed Jason’s career path, which was that of a hockey journeyman. He’s had NHL stints elsewhere in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Phoenix, Edmonton and most recently Philadelphia after a January call-up from the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, where he has played most of the season. The travel in itself was never easy: the trades, the assignments, the promotions and demotions. But the arrival of Ryder in 2009 was another matter entirely. His was a joyous birth, and he was a wonderful baby, but his early years would not come without difficulty. Within a month of his dismissal from school that September, the diagnosis was in: Ryder had autism.
The news wasn’t a shock to Jason and Kodette. The conclusion, when considered in hindsight, made sense of a lot of things. But that made it no easier to live with. Kodette, whose cousin had autism, had some experience to fall back on. Jason, by contrast, was a blank slate.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he said. “There was no sadness or no happiness. It was, ‘OK, what’s the next step? What do we do?’”
In a perfect world, he might have dropped everything. Yet Jason was a pro hockey player. By nature, he was always on the road, in for weeks at a time and then out seemingly as soon as he came. It was an imperfect arrangement, but it was the way he earned a living for his wife and son. For any hockey family, the constant travel is a strain, though for the father of a young child with autism, the challenges were stark. Kids with autism thrive on routine, schedules and familiarity. Ryder would be at his best in the comfort of those he was around most often. So when Jason had to leave on the road, re-establishing himself into Ryder’s life upon his return was never simple.
“When you come home, you’re excited to see your kid,” he said. “Most dads see their kid, especially their son, they want to grab them and pick them up. I couldn’t really do that.”
To Ryder, it didn’t matter that Jason was his father, or that he was smiling and happy, or that Jason so clearly had love for the boy shining right through his skin. To Ryder, Jason was somebody who was not there yesterday, or the day before that, and he needed time before he was comfortable letting dad back in again.
“That part,” Jason said, “was hard.” Jason and Kodette realized their boy needed help navigating his father’s schedule. At home, Kodette took control. She hung a large map of North America, and below it a calendar. When Jason was away, she would track her husband across the continent with Ryder to anchor in the boy’s mind where his father was.
“If Jason was in Colorado, then we’d find Colorado on the map,” she said. Countdowns offered assistance, too. Three weeks till we see daddy. Two weeks till we see daddy. “It helps,” Kodette said, “when he knows what to expect.”
All the while, Jason’s hockey career continued. Ryder was born during the family’s greatest time of stability, a four-year period from 2009 to 2013 when Jason played exclusively with Phoenix (to date, Jason has appeared in games for a total of six NHL teams and six AHL squads, as well as one ECHL club at the start of his pro career). However, the very next season Jason was back to an itinerary that more closely resembled his earlier days in hockey. He was signed to a one-year deal by the Oilers, but by the time Ryder was set up with the services and therapists he needed in Edmonton, Jason was traded to Chicago. Kodette was spent. By then, she had given birth to her and Jason’s second child, Easton, and the family had a choice to make. Rather than follow Jason to the U.S., where he might have had to change cities again without notice, they decided it would be best for Kodette and the boys to temporarily split from him. They would move instead to nearby Calgary, a familiar city the couple found comfort in. It was there she broke down.
One night in Calgary, as hockey again took Jason far away from the family, Kodette stared at the stacks of paperwork required to place Ryder on waiting lists for therapists and support workers all over again. She wept, the uncertainty of life finally overwhelming her. Kodette knew Ryder didn’t deserve such disarray, the looming threat of having to move once more in a few months’ time. In fact, he needed stability to grow. She called Jason, and the pair came to a difficult resolution. They would stay in Calgary through the end of that season and the next after that, too. Wherever Jason had to be, for Ryder’s sake the family could not be together.
Jason is 36 now, the oldest player by several years on the Phantoms. He still chases full-time duty in the NHL, a league he has often grasped in his career but failed to pin down completely. Yet his time in Lehigh Valley has brought with it a much happier consequence. Kodette, Ryder and Easton have joined him once again. Ryder’s time in Calgary proved incredibly fruitful. He was accepted into a specialized services school, where he flourished, and the hours spent under the guidance of therapists changed him greatly. He began to speak for the sake of speaking. He and Easton grew into best friends.
Ryder was ready for the move to Pennsylvania. He is six now, and of course he still faces tests in life. Dinners out can be a challenge for Ryder. Changes to routine, like Jason suddenly picking him up from school where Kodette had done so before, can also upset him. But he has come so far. With the help of an aide, he is able to attend a traditional first-grade class, and he enjoys school so much he often wonders why it cannot last all seven days of the week. When he gets into the car with Kodette, sometimes he will be the one to strike up a conversation, asking his mother how she is and how her day has been. They are tiny, fleeting moments, yet Jason and Kodette have also found that with Ryder these small markers deliver them an outsized sense of pride.
“He brings me happy tears probably every other day, if not every day,” Kodette said. “He’s got one line every day that’s like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ ”
Jason’s career goes on, nearly a generation away from its beginning, in 1998, when the Rangers drafted him in the third round. It is able to continue, he said, because of Kodette, who has cared so ably for their two boys but to him wears a cape each day with Ryder.
“She was a rock,” Jason said of his wife, who raises autism awareness as a cast member of the W Network reality series Hockey Wives. “She’s been a rock the whole time.” Where hockey takes Jason isn’t known today. Yet for the first time, no matter where he is due to take the ice, he has found stability at home, where a little boy, once uneasy around his returning father, cannot wait for him to appear.
“Ryder asks for Jason now,” Kodette said. “All the time.”