Canadian goalkeeper Labbe undaunted as she tries to break gender barrier

Stephanie Labbe in action for Canada. (Eugenio Savio/AP)

Earlier this year, Stephanie Labbe decided to follow in the footsteps of a number of Canadian women to try to break the gender barrier in sports.

The Canadian women’s team goalkeeper was offered the opportunity to train with Calgary Foothills FC, a men’s side in the Premier Development League, and work her way towards earning a spot on the roster.

Her goal was a historic one. While Manon Rheaume, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Shannon Szabados have suited up on men’s hockey teams, this would be a first in Canadian soccer.

However, a week and a half ago, the club and the goalkeeper learned she would not be able to play for Calgary because of “gender-based eligibility requirements.”

Labbe, who won a bronze medal representing Canada at the 2016 Olympics and has played professionally overseas for many years, sat down with Sportsnet to discuss her journey and the next step in her career.

SN: Break down the last couple of months. It seems like a whirlwind since you arrived in Calgary.

Labbe: At the beginning, it was a bit of being in and being out, being in and being out, just because I came in mid-February. I was here for about a week and a half, and then I left with the national team for the Algarve Cup. I came back for two weeks, trained, and left to go to France [for a friendly]. Since then, I’ve been back and been able to be a little more consistent and stable and prove myself for a longer period of time.

From day one, the guys have really accepted me, and I knew coming in I was going to have to fight for their trust and respect. But they didn’t seem like I needed to do that. They were super open to the idea of having me around, and I felt the pressure from the start to perform for them. I didn’t want to let them down, and I didn’t want to feel like I was holding them back. I challenged myself and pushed myself. They held me accountable and raised my levels of competitiveness. The energy and the power and the strength that I have to bring has pushed me to my limits on a daily basis.

I come out of training, and I’m exhausted. But I have the biggest smile on my face because I’ve never been in an environment where I’m pushed to my absolute technical limits, every single minute of every session. It’s incredible how good this environment is for me, on and off the field. It’s an incredible culture they’ve created here.

And you’ve suited up in a number of exhibition games, and seen a lot of playing time.

Yeah, and I didn’t know what to expect coming in. I knew Marco Carducci is here and is an incredible goalkeeper with an incredible resume. He was signed as the [starter] coming in, and I knew coming in I was challenging for a spot on the team and challenging for the backup position. I didn’t really know how much game time I would be getting in pre-season games. [The coach] has given me a chance to show that I can compete at this level and given me the chance to prove myself. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of game time I’ve been able to get and show not only these guys but all the other teams that I can compete at this level.

Reading your most recent blog, it sounds like it’s been an easy transition joining the club and becoming part of the squad.

The transition was simple because I came in with an open mind. I came in with a positive attitude, and I knew that I, number one, needed to bring work ethic, I needed to come in and work my butt off. I needed to show that I’m professional and that I treat this very seriously. This wasn’t just a media stunt for me or something to gain attention. This was something I was doing to better myself as a player, and I think that’s where the guys saw that I wanted out of this is what they wanted out of it. They want to be better as individuals and as a team and get results as a team. I wanted to come in and be a better goalkeeper and a better version of myself. The culture here that the coach, Tommy [Wheeldon Jr.], has created is incredible and reminds me a lot of the national team in the sense of the professionalism, the respect the team has for each other, a family feeling around the team and that’s really important.

When did the PDL tell you and the club that you were ineligible to play?

Coming in, this is something I approached Tommy about and that it was something that I wanted to do and break down some barriers, do something new. I’ve always looked up to Hayley Wickenheiser for the trailblazing that she’s done in her sport and to see Shannon Szabados doing it right now, I’ve admired that. When I was in the spot trying to decide what I wanted to do, those girls popped into my head.

He opened the door for me to come in and prove myself and see if I could make the squad. For him, the closer I got to really proving that I could compete and that I was at this level, the more he started to inquire to the league about it. Tommy told me about 10 days ago that he had heard back. They’re trying to challenge and get the league to rethink it, but they’re being pretty stiff-armed with their rules and not wanting to budge. We’ve been biting the bullet and looking at other options for now.

I’m very respectful of this team and what they’re preparing to do. The league starts next week, and I understand that this isn’t the forefront of their focus now. I completely understand and respect that. I want the club to be focused on their results and their season.

For me, I want to continue the conversation because it’s 2018. I want to keep pushing this and pushing the envelope. It might not happen for me in the next two months because it’s a short season and the opportunity for me to play in this league is probably closed at the moment, but it’s for those young girls that are following this story and seeing my journey. Just like how I saw Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados.

What’s the next step for you?

Tommy and I are being the most creative that we can in this situation. The European windows have certain signing windows, and they aren’t open right now. There is one that opens again, I believe in June or July, so I am looking at that option. I’m going to be pro-active and look at the European options. Until then, I’m staying in this environment and committed with this team. I’m training every day, and we’ll look at getting creative with game time, whether it’s with a men’s domestic team here in Calgary. We’ll go from there.

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