Charline Labonté looked at her competition and figured she didn’t have much of a chance. She was one of seven goalies hoping to land a spot on the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, and she was only 16 years old. Those two things fazed her. But the fact that she was the only girl on the ice? Not so much. She’d spent her whole life playing competitive hockey against boys, after all.
It was 1999, and there had only ever been one woman who played major-junior hockey: Manon Rheaume, who’d stepped between the pipes for one game for the Trois-Rivières Draveurs as a 19-year-old, eight years earlier.
Labonté had been drafted by the Titan in the 11th round of the QMJHL draft that June. Just a few months later she and her mother, Diane Paquet, had driven nine hours from their home in Boisbriand, Que., to training camp in Bathurst, N.B.
The Titan had won the President’s Cup as QMJHL champions the season before with a guy named Roberto Luongo in net. He was moving on to bigger things, but the Titan’s other two goalies were returning.
I don’t know if belong here, Labonté thought. But I have nothing to lose.
She’d brought only a backpack with a couple pairs of shorts and a T-shirt because she figured she’d be at camp for the weekend and then get released. But a month later, she was still there, and was quickly becoming the story of junior hockey. (Her mom had to return with a suitcase full of clothes.)
Labonté held her own through training camp and impressed the team’s coaching staff so much they decided to give her the third-string position. The day after signing her contract, Labonté received a call from the Titan’s veteran goalie, Philippe Ozga, who had been a huge source of support for her throughout training camp. He and other established players on the team had gone out of their way to make her feel welcomed.
Ozga told her that he’d been traded to Victoriaville.
“We were both crying on the phone,” Labonté says. “It was like, I’m losing my best friend. What am I going to do?”
Ozga pointed out the good news, though: His departure meant she was being promoted to back-up. Labonté wasn’t just going to be part of the roster — she was going to be the first woman to play a consistent role on a major-junior hockey team.
“It was such a crazy experience,” she says. “It was like a dream.”
Labonté won her first game, against Drummondville, and instantly became a local celebrity.
“It was like another world,” she says. “I’m a very introverted person, so doing interviews, signing autographs and taking pictures was very uncomfortable for me. It was a lot for a young, shy kid.”
In all, Labonté played 26 games for the Titan that season, facing off against future NHLers like Mike Riberio, Brad Richards and Jason Pominville in the process. The hockey-loving town packed the rink, buoyed by the President’s Trophy win in the team’s first season in Bathurst (after relocating from Laval).
Labonté thinks of her Titan teammates that season as a group of big brothers, who included her in everything and made sure she was never alone. They even tried to bring her along to a local bar in Bathurst, but Labonté’s fake ID was rejected — a predictable outcome given that pretty much everyone in the small town on the edge of Chaleur Bay knew who she was.
On the ice, though, things were rockier. After a strong start, the team faltered in the second half and management’s mindset changed — the front office began looking to rebuild.
“We became really bad,” Labonté laughs. “We all kind of knew it.”
Five of her closest friends on the team were traded. The next season, Labonté played two more games for the Titan then moved on to play for a tier II Junior A team in Montreal. But it wasn’t the right fit. It was much more complicated than it had been in Bathurst, where she’d been welcomed in as part of the team and the town.
Feeling like men’s hockey was over for her, Labonté almost gave up the sport entirely. Fortunately for Canadian hockey fans, though, she didn’t. She joined the women’s national team in 2001 and went on to win four Olympic gold medals with Team Canada and two world championships. Labonté also played five seasons with McGill, winning three national titles — and setting an all-time U Sports (then CIS) record for shutouts. Last year, she won the Clarkson Cup in goal for Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Labonté has since traded her goalie mask for a chef’s hat, pursuing a culinary career in Montreal, but she retired as one of the most celebrated goalies in the game. When she thinks back on all her accomplishments, her brief time in Bathurst remains near the top — she considers the 1999–00 season one of the most important of her career.
“It was an honour to be there. I got to learn from the best, from guys who are now in the NHL,” she says. “I got to learn and watch… trying to get to the next level.”
But most meaningfully, Labonté says, was that she was treated like any other player on the team. It wasn’t anything special to them, she says — and because of that, it meant everything to her.