Most AHL hockey players live hundreds, or sometimes thousands of miles away from home. For Utica Comets forward Justin Bailey, he’s never had to stray too far from the comfort of his hometown.
Born and raised in the Buffalo area, hockey was always on the mind of Bailey. Along with Buffalo being one of the country’s biggest hotbeds for the sport, proximity to a few decent players who combined for over 2,500-career NHL games helped expose him to the game.
“There were new apartments in Buffalo but I was too young to remember those days,” Bailey said. “My mom and my aunt lived together and formed a friendship with (former Sabres) Rob Ray, Michael Peca, and Matt Barnaby, who lived there as well.”
Of the three, Bailey still maintains a relationship with Barnaby, hitting the former NHL tough guy with plenty of questions about the business. Even if their playing styles are vastly different.
“He’s a hockey guy,” the 24-year-old winger said. “There’s things from his game that I could add to mine. Adding a more physical edge and being tougher to play against will help me get to the NHL faster.”
Exposure to Barnaby, Peca and Ray in the apartment building and beyond wasn’t the only time Bailey brushed shoulders with household-NHL names. Before embarking on his junior career in the OHL, the big-bodied forward headed the farthest away he had ever been from home for hockey…Long Island. And his billet dad on the island also knew a thing or two about the game and had the hardware to prove it.
“I moved to Long Island to live with (Hall of Famer) Pat LaFontaine,” said Bailey, cheerfully. “His son and I played on the same team and we ended up winning a national championship. Being able to learn from someone like that who had a great career and whose hockey IQ is off the charts was a cool year for sure.”
After showing off his combination of size, speed, and goal-scoring touch in the OHL, Bailey was drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft. And when his name was called, it was by the team whose players he used to pass in the apartment hallways. He, too, was a Buffalo Sabre.
Entering this season, all but 28 of Bailey’s nearly-300 pro games had been played for either the Buffalo Sabres or their AHL affiliate in Rochester. And while hockey has taken many around the world, he’s always been perfectly fine with being close to home.
“I come from a big Italian family, so they like to keep me close,” Bailey said. “I’ve never really been too far and it’s been a blessing being able to see my family as much as I do.”
With Upstate and Long Island covered, Justin needed to make an impact in the Big Apple for a New York Bingo. On January 3, 2017, he made that impact at Madison Square Garden when he recorded his first career NHL goal through the five hole of Henrik Lundqvist.
“It was a cool moment for me being able to score against a goalie like that at Madison Square Garden,” Bailey fondly remembered. “It was a great experience.”
With over 200 AHL games played and 60+ to his credit at the NHL level, there have been plenty of venues that Bailey has been able to play games in. There is one, however, that has always stood out. And as you probably could have guessed… it’s in New York state.
“Syracuse is one of my favorite places to play because of my success against them,” he laughed.
If that success continues in Bailey’s first season with the Comets, then don’t be surprised if the stands in Utica are filled with his jerseys that are being worn by people other than his big, Italian family from Buffalo.
Want to know more about Justin? Check out Joe Robert's 10 Questions With Joe!