A Lifetime of Caps Hockey:
Yvon Labre's 25 years in D.C. (p. 2)
by Mike Vogel
A taste of life with the Penguins whetted Labre's appetite for staying in the NHL. But so did his travel experience when the Penguins sent him back to Amarillo.
"When I first came up for those 21 games [in 1970-71], I stayed at the old William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh," Labre remembers. "I'd been there for more than a month, and they allowed me to bring my wife up. So both my wife and I were staying in the hotel. Then, when we went to fly back to Amarillo, that was a nightmare. We were supposed to fly to Chicago and then fly to Amarillo and that was it, we'd be home, right? Well, nobody accounted for the snowstorm. We couldn't land in Amarillo because of the 90-mile-an-hour crosswinds, so they flew us on to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, I proceeded to grab a cab, go downtown to a bus station and buy two bus tickets to go on from there. Well, we got on the bus and we get into a place called Tucumcari, New Mexico. And they had blocked the road; the state police had blocked the road. They weren't letting any traffic go by. And so we spent the whole night on a bus -- a warm bus -- but the whole night on a bus station in Tucumcari, which is a one-horse town. We stayed there until the next morning when they opened up the road. I had very little money on me at that time, other than enough to pay for the cab and then the bus. Back then, I was 21 years old and I didn't have a danged credit card, eh? So I had to use all my cash, and when it came to morning time, I only had enough money to buy my wife and I a chocolate bar for breakfast."
Soon enough, Labre would be close to all the chocolate he wanted. Pittsburgh again shifted its top minor league club in 1971-72, this time to Hershey, Pennsylvania.
"I loved Hershey," he says. "Hershey was a great place to play. If you couldn't play in the majors, Hershey was a great place." Labre had three fine seasons in Hershey playing for a strong Bears team. Hershey won 33, 42 and 39 games in Labre's three seasons there. In 1973-74, Labre was an integral part of the Calder Cup-winning Hershey Bears squad. Sadly, it was the last taste of winning Labre would enjoy in his career.
His life changed in ways he could not yet imagine when the Capitals plucked him from the Penguins in the 1974 expansion draft. In a portend of seasons to come, Labre missed the Capitals first two games with a shoulder injury.
He first suited up for Washington's inaugural home game, the first ever at the Capital Centre. That night, October 15, 1974, Labre scored Washington's first-ever goal at home. Before only 8,093 spectators, he beat Kings goaltender Rogatien Vachon to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. The game ended in a 1-1 deadlock.
"I was happy," he says of being drafted by the Caps. "It was a chance to play regularly. But they were tough times. They were very tough. I always thought we could have won more games. But there is a snowball effect to winning and the same thing happens when you're losing. I always felt that the team itself could have played a lot better. But we didn't.
"I went into games looking to win, not to lose. When you lose that much, a lot of people lose interest. And that was the hardest thing to take; when you had teammates who lost interest, because that had an effect on everything else that happened. But it was a very good experience, it was great for me. That's evident by the fact that I'm still here. That's coming to an end, but that's okay. I'm still gonna be here. I'm planning on being here at games. I'm still going to do be supporting the team and doing some community involvement with the alumni."
That first Washington squad featured a pair of highly touted rookies, defenseman Greg Joly and winger Mike Marson. The two were force-fed at the NHL level when they would have been better off receiving their pro training at the minor league level. Each player had his own special burden to bear. Joly was the first overall pick in the 1974 Entry Draft and Marson was just the second African-American player ever to skate in the NHL.
"I think Joly had knee surgery that first year," Labre recalls. "That set him back. I don't know that the first year here ever did him any good. It was not good for young guys to be in that [losing] situation."
Labre was Marson's roommate on the road that season, and he witnessed first-hand the trials and tribulations endured by the teenage phenom.
"I remember they had cameras set up in hotel lobbies just interviewing him about [being the second African-American NHLer]," says Labre. "To me, he handled it pretty well. Mike was very mature for his age. I don't know if it affected his play or not. Mike could skate and handle himself with anybody in the league. I saw that when he took on the big defenseman from Chicago, Phil Russell. Phil Russell didn't want any more of Mike when he was finished. Mike's skills weren't honed very well as far as passing and receiving a pass. But he could skate with anybody and be physical with anybody. It's too bad they didn't get to develop more before they got to the National Hockey League because I think they both would have been much better hockey players."
Teammates dubbed Labre and Marson "Chico and the Man."
"[Former Capital] Blair Stewart is the only one who remembers that," laughs Labre. "Even now he still calls me Chico."
Marson, who grew up near Toronto, saw Labre play junior hockey for the Marlboros and went on to become his NHL teammate and roommate.
"Actually, he was one of my heroes when I used to go to the junior games. Yvon was consistent," Marson says of Labre. "He played tough, it didn’t matter who it was or where it was, he played the same game. Even when he was hurt, he’d still get in there and do what he had to do."
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