As Charline Labonté watched the seconds tick down from her crease at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa during the Clarkson Cup Final, she was already contemplating her future.
“Things went way above anything I could have imagined,” she said. “It was an easy decision. As soon as the buzzer sounded and we celebrated I was like ‘alright this was it.’”
Labonté, who announced her retirement on Monday, said that she started thinking about retirement before the Sochi Olympics. She knew those would be her final Olympics, and about a year ago started thinking about retiring for good.
She says she was “80% sure” the Clarkson Cup Final would be her last game when it started. The other 20%?
“Maybe it’s a bit selfish, but I really wanted a Clarkson Cup. Everyone did. We had made it to the final three years in a row and I was never at my best in the Final so I really wanted to give it a last shot and really play very well so I could go away when I’m still on top of my game.”
“Knowing myself and how competitive I am, if I wouldn’t have won and I didn’t play well, maybe I would have come back.”
Labonté was named MVP of the game. She was also named CWHL Goaltender of the Year two days before - for the third straight year.
“I’ve always promised myself to leave hockey when I’m still on top of my game and that was the perfect scenario. Not only winning but getting all the individual awards that come with it was a huge bonus and I was like, ‘this is clear.’ I don’t think things could get much better than that, so it’s probably time to go.
“I had a pretty clear idea [immediately after the game] but I was on a high. I just wanted to celebrate, be with my teammates and, finally, winning that Clarkson Cup. I knew I had done exactly what I wanted to do to make that decision to retire.”
When Labonté was drafted by the Montreal Stars in the first round of the 2012 Canadian Women's Hockey League draft, it wasn't the first time she heard her name called to begin a major step in her career.
That's because Labonté lived through the experience at the 1999 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in Quebec.
“When I started playing Midget AA, someone approached me during the season and said ‘we got a call from one of the teams in the [QMJHL] and they said they’d be interested in drafting you’ and I was like, ‘What? This is crazy talk.’ And as the season went on, I got more and more calls and about 10 teams had called at my parents’ place just asking me if I’d be interested if they drafted me and I was like, ‘alright this is just talk, it’s never going to happen.’”
She had an ally in the manager of her midget team, the Seigneurs de Mille Iles. Gilles Carré was also the regional scout for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, who moved from Laval a year earlier.
“I had the advantage of being the manager of the team that year. She played for my team so I saw her all year,” Carré said. “In games, in practice, in tournaments ... what I was talking about was through my experience.”
Labonté burst on the scene at the annual Kiwanis Midget tournament in Gatineau. She won goalie of the tournament for her level, which was unheard of for a girl.
Currently, the top level of Midget is AAA, but back then goaltenders didn't change regions like they do today and players were more spread out among different levels.
“She had a good season,” said Jacques Blouin, then an assistant head scout for the Titan and now the director of player development for Hockey Quebec. “Gilles said ‘even if she’s a girl, I think she’s able to play.’”
“There weren’t a lot of girls who played with boys at the elite level,” said Richard Lafrenière, Acadie-Bathurst's head scout. “She was playing in the Midget AA category with boys. She played in tournaments, and played well at a tournament that was important.
“Gilles Carré followed her. It wasn’t a last-minute decision. We followed her.”
“I was at many drafts,” Lafrenière continued. “I was a scout for over 35 years. What hit me when we announced her name — it was me who called her name back then — we’re in the 11th round. Usually in the 11th round, it’s calm, people have already left. But when we called her name there was a spontaneous applause and there were a lot of players who played with her or against her and they all went into the centre aisle to shake her hand and congratulate her. There was a phenomenon and it was as if everyone was saying ‘she deserves this.’”
Labonté recalled the moment of her selection.
“I went to the draft and I got drafted in the 11th round so I was pretty much the last kid left in there and it was amazing and I remember it like it was yesterday. A lot of my guy friends that I played with had stayed with me the whole time because they felt like it would be a great day for me, and my family was there and I got drafted.”
“I was in complete disbelief. I remember exactly how it started and what they said and I remember it took me forever to get to the stage because all the people that I knew that had stayed for me were still there and I was giving a handshake and kisses to everyone, so I think it took me about 10 minutes to get to the actual stage and get the hat and get the jersey and I was shaking. It was so incredible.”
“She proved she could play with boys and I had her ranked, and at a certain point we could draft her, we had nothing to lose,” Carré said. “I never had any regrets.”
“You pick players because you have a feeling,” said Lafrenière. “Because you know the qualities they have and in Charline’s case it was Mr. Carré who convinced us of that aspect.”
As an 11th-round pick, Labonté had an uphill battle at training camp. Even when she was drafted, she didn't think she'd be there for long.
“You get drafted and then behind the scenes there is all the goalie equipment you get to pick in case you make the team and in my mind I was like, ‘oh my God ... Imagine?’ So I just picked out the craziest equipment that I was just dreaming about because I never ever thought I would make that team and then a couple of months later I made the team and got the equipment that I designed and it was just insane. Absolutely insane.”
“We were eight goalies at camp including two returning players, and they had won the President’s Cup the year before with [Roberto] Luongo so I was like ‘what am I doing here? This was Luongo’s spot last year...’
“I was so focused and I had heard people say ‘it’s just a publicity stunt,’ ‘whatever it’s just a girl’. And I hear that stuff. I heard it all and I was like ‘oh yeah? Let me show you and let me prove you wrong.’
“She had a lot of character, she was extremely smart and able to adapt,” Blouin said. “She never tried to do too much. She never asked for special treatment. At a certain point, we had to keep her because she was performing so well. She wasn’t just holding her own, she was making her place.”
Labonté made the team as a backup goaltender by outplaying the other goaltenders at camp and showing consistency. She played in 26 games in 1999-2000 with a 4-9-2 record. She had a 5.22 goals-against average and .841 save percentage.
But perhaps most impressively, she won her first game. She made 30 saves against the Drummondville Voltigeurs in a 7-4 win. Her team scored five straight goals to win the game. She was the first woman to start - and win - a game in the QMJHL at just 16 years old.
But it wasn't the results she was focused on. She played two games the next year, but took away a lot from the experience.
“For me it was practice, training, and watch and learn,” Labonté said. “Watching my starter ... I remember he was extremely flexible and he would make these crazy saves even when he was way out of position and I was like, ‘I need to do this. This would let me make a couple of more saves.’ So every night I would just stretch and stretch until I was able to do the splits and it’s crazy but it really helped me as a goalie to be more flexible.
“There’s so much you can learn just by watching other people when you surround yourself by people who are better than you and you’re willing to take a back seat and just watch. It was a very good learning situation for me.
“That was a huge turning point in my career and it made me better, stronger, physically and mentally, and I got a chance to transfer those skills to the National Team.”
After Bathurst, she would play in the CWHL's predecessor, named the NWHL from 2000 to 2006, while focusing on her goal of making Team Canada. She was a member of the 2002 and 2006 Olympic teams, winning gold.
Then she went on to her next stop.
For Labonté the decision to go to McGill University was an easy one. Due to her QMJHL experience, she wasn't eligible to go to the NCAA, and she knew Peter Smith, the head coach at McGill who was also involved in the National Team program.
“McGill was always a dream. I was never a very good student. I was working hard but I was an average student and I never thought I would get into McGill. When I realized that I needed to pick it up and be better, I had time to work on my grades and be a better student. That’s the only place I applied to and for me it was McGill or nothing and I’m very lucky that I got accepted.”
A role model, a friend, a big sister, a hell of a goalie, an amazing cook but most of all my favorite bro with the biggest heart! Congrats to @clabonte32 on an amazing career! Words can't describe how lucky and thankful i am to have had the chance to be part of your journey! You inspire me everyday and from the bottom of my heart thank you for taking me under your wings and showing me the ropes! Damn the culinary world is lucky❤️ good luck in your next chapter!
Labonté was dominant at McGill. She had a record of 155-16-3 over her university career with a 1.00 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. She had 78 shutouts.
“I actually think — and this is going to sound a bit crazy just based on all the accolades that she’s earned over the years — but I actually kind of think that she didn’t get the credit that she deserved,” said Shauna Denis, who played with Labonté at McGill for two years. “You look at how we did at Nationals when we won in ‘07-08 and she didn’t allow a goal in three games. It got to the point that she made it look so easy that people assumed it was.”
“You play with confidence when she's behind you,” said Les Canadiennes' Cathy Chartrand, who has known Labonté for close to 20 years and played with her at the provincial, national, university, and professional level. “You know if you screw up she's probably going to save your ass.”
Whether it was as the only girl in the QMJHL, or the only gold medalist at McGill, one thing was clear with Labonté: she just wanted to be one of the players on the team.
“She’s fresh off a gold medal [from 2006 in Torino] and you see the rookies when they meet her they try to be cool about it but you see in their eyes how excited they are,” Denis said. “She just wanted to be part of the group. She didn’t want the spotlight and that kind of rubbed off on everyone as well and you want to follow that behaviour.
“We played the first game and right before the second game she pulls me aside. She just wanted to talk. I was a bit nervous. I was like, ‘I hope she isn’t getting cold feet,’” Denis said. “She’s like, ‘Listen, I know you really want to stand near the crease during the cheer but I’m also really superstitious would you mind if we shared time?’ and I was like ‘Charlie, I’m not superstitious. I stood there because there was a spot. I’ll stand on the blue line if you want. Whatever is going to help you stop pucks.’ In her mind she doesn’t want to tell the captain of the team what to do but to me it was like ... ‘you’re an Olympic gold medalist. Do whatever you need to do, I’ll get out of your way.’
“She doesn’t want to be Olympic Gold Medalist Charline Labonté. She just wants to be Charlie,” said Denis.
“We played a team and we beat them 16-1 and we were sharp. We won the National Championship that year. We had a team that played with urgency in games where there was really no urgency at all,” said Smith. “I thought Charline was very sharp in that game, communicated well, played the puck well, moved the puck up and when the game was over I told her ‘good game’ and before I got a chance to qualify what I meant by good game she said ‘Peter. Realistically, that team had nine shots on me. Even if I wasn’t in goal we would have won the game by seven.’ So she brought a different perspective,” he said, laughing.
Another aspect that led to Labonté's success was her family. Her parents Diane and Pierre and her brother Louis were pillars in her life and allowed her to become the outstanding player she was, and great person she is.
“They’ve been my rock since day one. They’ve been absolutely amazing,” she said.
“It’s funny because I come from an artistic family. They didn’t know much about hockey or sports in general. I don’t know where my passion for sports came from and they just said ‘we’ll support you. Whatever you want to do, you’ll do it.’
“They are probably the reason I played the game for so long and why I loved the game so much; because I never felt that pressure of performing or competing or being the best. They always said ‘just have fun’ and ‘when you don’t have fun you just quit hockey and you’ll find something that you love more.’
“And my brother … he’s two years younger and he’s been really, really amazing with me. I took a lot of that attention and time for the family because of all the traveling and money for goaltending equipment and camps and tournaments and he could have been really jealous and annoyed by me, but he was my biggest fan. He always supported me, he followed us everywhere and I owe him so, so much for his support and understanding.”
“Her parents were in a position to support her and to encourage her to help her through the struggles,” said Lafrenière. “It’s rare that any hockey player — male or female — plays in a high level and doesn’t need to be supported. The people around her, her family, there are always moments that are difficult, and I would imagine that Charline dealt with those moments, but Mr. Carré talked about the amount that her parents could support her.”
Although she hesitated to name one, Labonté calls the 2006 Olympic Gold her favourite moment. She played the semi-final and then played her only Olympic Gold Medal Game.
“It was very special for me. My parents were there, my brother was there and I remember looking at them with my medal around my neck and waving at them saying ‘Hey we made it, we made it all together,’ and it was a very special moment for the family.”
After the Clarkson Cup win, Labonté was talking to the media when Emerance Maschmeyer, the goaltender who started the game for the Calgary Inferno, came into the room and the two players shared a hug.
The moment became poignant months later when Maschmeyer was traded to Montreal, and, with Labonté's retirement - and recruitment - will take her spot in the Montreal net.
The two met at the 2016 World Championship in Kamloops, where they shared Canada's crease.
“Masch and I really connected even though I’m  years older than her,” Labonté said. I feel like she sees me as a big sister and I see her as a little sister and someone that I can really help to go through everything because I’ve done it and I was there and I know exactly what she’s going through. There’s a huge amount of respect between each other.”
It is fitting that someone who followed in the footsteps of Manon Rhéaume in junior hockey and Kim St. Pierre on Team Canada and at McGill would then be able to pass the torch to someone else.
And now it's on to the next challenge for Labonté, who mastered and perfected the art of goaltending, and now moves on to her dream of being a chef. If you ask those who know her, she'll probably be great at that as well.
“She’s worked hard for everything she’s gotten whether in school or in hockey or anything else and it's easy to respect someone who has that kind of work ethic,” said Smith.
Just don’t expect her to take all the credit.
“I have been so fortunate to be on really, really amazing teams and spend most of my career on winning teams which is very exceptional for an athlete so I’m very lucky in regards to that.” Labonté said.
So while Labonté considers herself lucky to be a part of four Olympic gold medal-winning teams, three University national champions, two World Championship-winning teams, and a Clarkson Cup championship team, it doesn't seem as though luck had anything to do with it.