Lightning rookie defenseman Mark Barberio said his passion for hockey — and soccer, for that matter — was partly sparked by his grandfather Angelo.
Angelo and his wife, Lidia, were Italian immigrants that helped raise Barberio in Quebec City while his parents worked.
"We were really close," Barberio said.
That's what made it so tough for Barberio, 23, last fall. He felt so close to realizing his NHL dream when Angelo died just before the start of the AHL season.
Angelo, who had diabetes and pancreatic cancer, got to watch a few of Barberio's AHL games on television.
Barberio made his NHL debut on Tuesday in his first "surreal" week with the Lightning, a week that continues with tonight's game against Washington.
"He had a big part in me making it here for sure," Barberio said of his grandfather. "I'm just hoping he's watching me now, because I know he'd be proud."
It's been a long journey for Barberio, the team's sixth-round draft pick in 2008. The Lightning hopes the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder can grow into the kind of poised, puck-moving defenseman and power-play point man it has sought since trading Dan Boyle in 2008.
Barberio has the flair and offensive ability, as seen by his 61 points in becoming the AHL's top defenseman in 2011-12 and 40 points in becoming a second-team all-star selection this year.
"There's a dynamic piece to him, and he's just that guy if you're down a goal, 'Barbs' somehow finds a way," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He'll end up on the score sheet at some point with the tying goal."
The Lightning has taken a patient approach with Barberio, slowly bringing him along in nearly two full seasons in the AHL. Cooper, who coached Barberio at AHL Norfolk and Syracuse, said Barberio wasn't put on the power play right away and wasn't used on the penalty kill until this season.
Barberio understood the slow process, which made him the team's seventh rookie callup this year. He said that in his first AHL season, he'd "almost run around like a chicken with its head cut off." But he believes his defense is much improved and he learned to be more relaxed and calm in the defensive zone, letting plays come to him rather than forcing things.
"You're talking about being spoon fed," Cooper said. "He takes it, he eats it, he digests it, and he becomes good at it, and you give him something else. He's been able to handle it, but it took three years."
Danny Flynn, who coached Barberio for three years at Moncton in the Quebec Major junior league, believes it's a testament to his determination and commitment. Flynn pointed out that Barberio has helped win championships in two of his past three seasons (for Moncton in 2009-10 and the AHL Calder Cup last season with Norfolk) and shows little fear in big moments.
Flynn will never forget the "Peter Forsberg-type move" Barberio made for the winning goal in a shootout against Patrick Roy's junior team, the Quebec Remparts, in front of 14,000 fans in Quebec City.
"You don't see a defenseman try something as slick as that," Flynn said. "But he walked in cool as a cucumber."
Barberio has kept his cool since getting his dream callup Monday, holding his own in two games, Tuesday against the Senators and Thursday against the Penguins. Cooper said he wasn't perfect but "as good as we hoped he could be."
"When they thought I was ready, they've given me the chance," Barberio said. "I've just got to make the most of it."
And make his grandfather proud.
ROSTER MOVE: The team reassigned forwards Brett Connolly and Tyler Johnson to Syracuse on Friday.