Kodette LaBarbera found herself faced with a heart-breaking decision a few years ago. Though she enjoyed the jet-setting lifestyle of being an NHL hockey wife, her young son Ryder relied heavily on his routine and the many resources in his life.
Ryder was diagnosed with autism in Phoenix while LaBarbera’s goaltender husband Jason played for the Arizona Coyotes, and for years she’d struggled to find him appropriate support — a unenviable task, considering their nomadic lifestyle.
The LaBarberas moved multiple times as her husband’s career trajectory gained momentum, and at one point they ended up in Edmonton. But when Jason was traded to Chicago, she had to put her foot down.
For the sake of Ryder’s development, she was going to make the sacrifice to live separately from her husband to ensure her son received the care he needed. Now six, Ryder has been flourishing in Calgary, where she lives with him full-time.
“He’s doing so well. Every single day he amazes me with something new. He’s the kindest little person, so sweet and thoughtful,” she said.
LaBarbera said she read the bestselling autism memoir The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida to help her understand her son’s mind, and now she recommends it to everyone she knows.
“One thing I’d like people to know is that people with autism absorb everything around them. Just because they don’t speak back doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. People talk around Ryder like he’s not even there. I wish they would understand that he can hear.”
LaBarbera said one of the reasons she agreed to star on the show Hockey Wives, which airs March 18 on the W network, is to help people gain a better understanding of the supports available for families dealing with an autism diagnosis.
“I was never in denial. I never hemmed and hawed. I’d say definitely be proactive. There’s no sense in sitting back and wondering about second opinions. The younger they are when they get the diagnosis, the better off they’ll be.”
Ryder now has a younger brother, Easton, who will also be starring in the show with his mother.
“I have never met anyone with as much personality and character as this kid. He’s entertaining for sure.”
Which was perfect when the cameras began filming, because while LaBarbera was nervous, her sons seemed to have no problem mugging for the audience.
“There was one camera guy, Mike, that Easton loved so much. He was sad when he had to go back to Toronto.”
LaBarbera said though her Nelson family has since moved to Vernon, she still considers it her home.
“Nelson was so good to us. It’s just the best little town, and when I tell people what we did for gym class — wakeboarding, hiking, golfing, skiing — it didn’t get much better than that growing up. I just want to show it off to everyone.”
LaBarbera said she wasn’t given an advance screening of Hockey Wives, so she will be experiencing it for the first time along with the audience. That makes her a little nervous.
“Even with an interview it’s hard to match myself. Jason will record them and I can’t even watch. He has to watch a lot of his own interviews, but for me that was hard.”
She said his support sustains her.
“I’m high strung, so it’s nice when we have this calm person there. Jason is really kind and really smart. A lot of people don’t know that about him. He pretty much knows anything.”
And though they have a shrine to his NHL awards in their basement, it’s his skills as a father she prizes most highly.
“He’s a really hands-on father, so this is hard for us, being apart. It’s hard not being able to have him be a part of Ryder’s therapy, or to take them to school, but he knows this is the best situation for Ryder and he knows it’s worth it.”
Jason, who is in his 15th professional season, is now under contract to Anaheim, but has lately been going back and forth between their minor league affiliate in Norfolk, Va.
As for Kodette herself, what kind of hockey wife is she?
“I think people would say I like to maintain my friendships with the girls I’ve met. All throughout our career with hockey I’ve known a bunch of the girls, from even before we started filming, and I’ve maintained those friendships. Charity is very important to us and we like to get the kids involved. That’s really important to us.”