In just a few days, Charline Labonté will pull on her goaltender pads for the last time this CWHL season, as she tries to lead Les Canadiennes to the Clarkson Cup.
Winning has been a goal for Labonté and the team since the season's start, as revenge for last year's overtime final loss to Boston. But back when Labonté was just a young girl playing boy's hockey, her future was far from certain.
“I was a shy kid, so being a girl in a men’s world isn’t always easy. [There are] people repeating that you don’t belong here and that girls don’t play hockey, I’m not good enough, that I’m not strong enough, that I’m not going to make it anywhere,” Labonté said.
“When you’re a kid, those comments coming out of either parents or teammates or opposite players, it gets to you. It was tough.”
It was so tough that when Labonté was in high school, she questioned everything. But Labonté, who began skating as a Ringette player when she was five, always wanted to be a hockey goalie.
“My parents are artists, they didn’t know anything about sports. They just wanted me to get out there and make new friends and then explore something new,” Labonté said.
“My parents have been amazing. They didn’t know much of what’s going on but they just supported me the whole way, not putting pressure on me at all."
Her love of goaltending won.
“I loved being goalie, being in my bubble,” Labonté said. “I love being challenged and I love to prove people wrong, so that’s what kind of kept me going. [It’s] like, you don’t believe I can be here? Well, let me show you.
“I think that’s the attitude that, any of us that grew up in that generation, we had to have...or else it was impossible to make it through.”
Labonté did prove her doubters wrong, eventually playing Major Junior hockey and becoming a member of Canada's national team. She's won four Olympic medals and has played in several Women's World Championships. And in a few more weeks, Labonté will pull on her Canadian sweater again for Worlds.
Despite her national accolades, Labonté still tries to follow the examples set by trailblazers Manon Rhéaume and Cassie Campbell.
"It’s a slow process. Maybe it was tougher for us and it was even tougher for people, the girls, the women that were there before us...All those girls that didn’t have much support, but they just played for the passion of the game, which is something that we tried to follow," Labonté said.
“It’s not [abnormal] now to see a girl play hockey. It’s just like, oh yeah, cool, she plays hockey. And it’s very empowering for young girls.”
Years after joining Rhéaume as one of the few women to play Major Junior hockey, Labonté attended McGill. Over her five seasons at McGill, Labonté helped the Martlets to three championships.
“We’re really fortunate that Charlie’s a competitor,” Labtone’s teammate Julie Chu said. “Every time that she steps into the net she’s ready to play. She wants to compete for every single puck. so whether it’s a routine save or it’s one where we need her to make to a big save in a game, she’s there for us.”
Now as Les Canadiennes goaltender, Labonté has dealt with multiple injuries -- including a knee injury that hampered her. The 33-year-old is healthy now, but has focused on her fitness.
“The young ones are so good and so strong and very very fit,” Labonté said. "Right now I have an amazing trainer that listens to me and knows my body very well [and] knows exactly what I need and when I need to be pushed and when I need to be held back. It’s great to have that kind of support."
Labonté is in her third season with Les Canadiennes, where she's been teammates with Chu. But the duo have also faced each other on the international state, with Labonté in red and white and Chu in red, white, and blue.
“We’ve always had a huge respect for Charlie," Chu said.
“You’re playing against a goalie that has all this confidence. It’s definitely something that’s not necessarily intimidating, but you notice. It’s understanding that when you play against a goalie like that, you’re going to have to be at your best and you’re going to have to work as a team to be successful against her."
There's always pressure on goaltenders, especially on the international stage. The pressure challenged Labonté when she was younger, but now the goaltender's mental attitude has improved.
“As a goalie, you’re either a hero or the reason why we lost," Labonté said. "I had to learn how to handle that pressure, which I love now. I want to be in those games, I want to be that goalie that’s getting a lot of pressure and I can perform under it."
Labonté's mental improvement came from working with a sports psychologist and from earning her masters' degree in sports psychology. While studying for the degree, Labonté examined how different athletes dealt with different pressures at different stages.
"There’s so much going on that in the end you really can’t control other than your work ethic, your attitude and the person that you are in general," Labonté said.
"Coaches' decisions and other teams or other teammates, that’s all out of your control. For me, I used to put a lot of pressure on myself with those external aspects. So I tried and I learned to really narrow my focus on things that I can do and what I can control, and kind of let go of the rest.”
But there's a different mental challenge that Labonté has faced this season. As a goaltender on an offensively dominant team, Labonté sees very few shots.
“In a way, it’s almost more difficult when you’re in a game where you’re not getting as many shots," Chu said." It’s the same thing as a player that gets to maybe be cycled in and out of a shift or a couple line changes. When you’re not on a regular rotation, it’s hard to get a rhythm.
"And it’s the same thing for goalies. When you’re not getting consistent shots, it’s not as easy to stay in a rhythm, to stay engaged. There’s a lot of downtime on your own."
Labonté's save percentage of .925 is the highest in the CWHL, but she's only made 357 saves. It's similar to Labonté's time at McGill, where Labonté also faced few shots.
"All these preparations, all these moments of being an elite athlete before has helped her through this season to really take advantage or be prepared for every situation that came at her," Chu said.
This weekend, Labonté will face one of her toughest challenges of the season in a winner-take-all match against Calgary.
"We’re pretty sure though that there’s going to be a little more flow back and forth [and] that she’s going to be a little bit more challenged and engaged," Chu said. "We expect it to be really high tempo, a lot of shots, a lot of opportunities on both sides.
"We’re going to rely on Charlie in a lot of ways to do the great goaltending that she has. At the same time, we’re going to make sure that we are all doing our job in front of her to hopefully minimize opportunities and be able to eliminate any second chance opportunities that might arise."
When Labonté faces Calgary on Sunday, she'll have to stop some threats -- including recently returned Rebecca Johnston and Rookie of the Year candidate Elana Lovell.
"We need to know what we’re up against, but I like to believe that we need to just focus on what we’ve done and everything that we’ve done to progress as a team that got us to the Clarkson Cup final," Labonté said.
"I think the whole game is going to be a challenge. It’s going to be two great teams playing for one cup.”
(Photo credit: calmstorm/Flickr)