A Lifetime of Caps Hockey:
Yvon Labre's 25 years in D.C.
by Mike Vogel
On June 12, 1974, the Washington Capitals conducted the expansion draft that would stock the franchise with its first core of players. Still some four months shy of their first regular season games, owner Abe Pollin's new hockey team selected a total of 24 players from the 16 existing NHL clubs. With their fourth selection (the eighth overall), the Capitals took a stocky, hard-nosed defenseman from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. Yvon Labre, a 24-year-old native of northern Ontario, was a Washington Capital.
More than 25 years later, much has changed on the Washington hockey landscape. Pollin no longer owns the team, and the team no longer plays its games in its original Landover, Maryland home. Those 24 original Capitals are long gone from Washington; well, all but one of them. All but Labre.
Labre will turn 50 on November 29, 1999. He has now spent more than half his life drawing a paycheck from the Washington Capitals. But nothing lasts forever. Labre's long tenure with the team will come to an end next month; he is leaving the organization effective December 31. As the next century dawns, the last remaining link to the team's infancy will be gone.
When he left home at the age of 16 to start his hockey career, the kid from northern Ontario -- Sudbury to be exact -- had no idea he'd wind up spending a quarter-century in Washington. Labre left Sudbury to go to Markham, a Toronto suburb where he played for the Markham Waxers of the Toronto Metro Junior "B" League. The kid from Sudbury failed to light the red lamp in 32 games, but it didn't matter. Labre had established his career path as a rugged, no-nonsense defender who let opposing forwards know they weren't welcome in front of his net. For his efforts, Labre was named the league's outstanding defenseman.
He was then drafted to play for the fabled (Junior "A") Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey Association. But Labre did not make such an auspicious splash with the Marlies.
"[Former Maple Leaf] Gus Bodnar was our coach," Labre relates of his first season with the Marlboros. "All training camp, we had been practicing at George Bell Arena. And here we were coming into the season where we had our games and all our practices at Maple Leaf Gardens. I would come down to Maple Leaf Gardens from Markham in a car -- it was about 25, 30 miles -- and go right back afterwards. My first time practicing at the Gardens, I didn't have a very good day. I couldn't get myself to move. I couldn't move, period. My muscles had gone to concrete. Bodnar called me over. He said, 'What's wrong with you?' I said, 'I … I don't know coach. I really don't know.' He told me to get moving, but I couldn't get going. My muscles just wouldn't do anything. So he called me back over. He pointed up at the rafters and said, 'It's a pretty big building, isn't it?' All I could do was look way up in the end blues and the things that I'd watched on TV or listened to on the radio, and go, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Look, you'll be all right, you farmer. You'll get over it. It's a big building and it must be intimidating you. Because right now, you're worse than a pee-wee player.’" Labre laughs at the recollection.
Labre soon got over the hurdle of playing at the Cathedral of Hockey on Church Street, but he also found himself pining for Sudbury."There was no doubt about it, I was homesick," he recalls. "I remember that first Christmas, I was so looking forward to going home. I didn't know if I was going to come back," he laughs.
"It's the first time that I was actually going to fly on a plane," Labre explains. "Frankie Hamill -- who was drafted by the Canadiens at the same time as me [Montreal's 10th pick, 79th overall] -- played [for the Marlboros] and also was from Sudbury. He'd been with the Marlies for three years. So he says, 'Follow me, rookie. Okay, our flight doesn't leave until this time at this gate, so let's go get something to eat. So we're eating, and while we're eating, there's an announcement we don't hear. We go to our gate at the time the plane is supposed to be leaving, and there is a plane leaving for the Bahamas or somewhere. So we asked where our flight was. And the airline guy says, 'Didn't you hear the announcement? It left from the gate. It's already gone.' Well, I couldn't believe it. I wanted to strangle [Hamill] because we only had a day or two to go up. So there we were at the Toronto airport on stand-by for a few hours, trying to go home. I was truly disappointed.
"But I did come back, and it was no problem after that. Once you make new friends in a place, it gets a lot easier. The homesickness went away."
In two seasons with the Marlies, Labre scored a total of five goals and 29 points. But he was rock solid in his own end, and he was a gritty competitor. The Pittsburgh Penguins took note of his strengths, and drafted him with the 38th overall pick in the 1969 Entry Draft. Labre began his pro career just up I-95, playing for the Baltimore Clippers, Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate.
The following season, the Penguins top minor league affiliate was the Amarillo (Texas) Wranglers of the Central Hockey League. Labre began the season in Amarillo, but was soon summoned to Pittsburgh.
Labre has no recollection of his first NHL game. But like most players, he vividly recalls his first NHL goal.
"The first goal, I remember. I beat Tony Esposito," Labre proudly recalls."It was in a game in Pittsburgh. I hit him right in the middle of the chest. You know how he went down on his knees? It caught him up high, and hit him at such an angle that the puck popped straight up, flipped end over end and fell straight behind him." Labre's eyes light up and he chuckles as he tells of beating a Hall of Fame netminder for the first of his 14 NHL career goals.
PAGE 1 | PAGE 2 | PAGE 3