A Lifetime of Caps Hockey:
Yvon Labre's 25 years in D.C. (p. 3)
by Mike Vogel
Labre played 76 games for Washington that first year and appeared in all 80 games in 1975-76. He led the club in penalty minutes in each of those seasons and was named captain in the middle of the 1975-76 campaign.
A variety of injuries began to take a toll on Labre's body during the 1976-77 season. He played in 62 games that season, and was never able to play in as many games again over the remainder of his NHL career. Despite missing 18 games, Labre was named the team's outstanding defenseman in 1976-77. When he was able to drag his battered body to the ice, he was frequently at less than 100% physically. But his teammates and Capitals fans always knew that regardless of his physical condition, Labre was giving his every effort on the ice throughout every shift. Three times during his seven-year career in Washington, Labre was named the Capitals' Most Popular Player.
Memories? Labre has plenty. And some stand out above all.
"Probably the best road win I can remember for the franchise while I was playing was when we beat Philadelphia in Philadelphia," Labre affirms. "Six-nothing," he proudly blurts.
The date was December 21, 1980. The victory was made all the sweeter by the fact that the Flyers had defeated the Caps by a 5-2 count a night earlier at the Cap Centre.
"It was like, there was nothing they were going to be able to do about it. Archie Henderson [now the Capitals' pro scout] was brought up for that game. Archie Henderson took on [Flyers' tough-guy defenseman] Behn Wilson twice that night. He paid a price for it, because Behn Wilson was a good fighter. I know Archie took it on the chin for the team, but he was more than willing. And I remember our goaltender, Mike Palmateer, playing the game of his life. [Philadelphia outshot the Caps in that game, 44-29.] And it was like it didn't matter what they did, we were finally gonna kick their …" he trails off, satisfaction in his voice and on his face.
"I even scored a goal in that game," he proudly avers. "That was a big highlight for me. That after all those years of taking thumpings from the Broad Street bullies, that we went into their building and we thumped them." Besides scoring the penultimate goal of his NHL career, Labre also racked up 11 minutes of penalties in that contest, including five for fighting Philly's Mel Bridgman and a minor for roughing Flyers captain Bobby Clarke with less than five minutes remaining in the third.
But the old warrior had few games and but one goal left in his weary body. On February 12, 1981, Labre scored against Buffalo to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. Later in the game, he took a check from Buffalo rookie Steve Patrick. He felt something go in his knee right then. He suited up for the team's next game, against Montreal on February 14, but that was the last night any Capital player would wear number seven on the ice. With his knee in need of major reconstructive surgery, Labre surrendered to physical reality. The 31-year-old's playing career was over.
Nine months later, the Capitals hoisted his sweater to the rafters of the Capital Centre.
”There were a lot of good memories, but my best one has to be the retiring of my jersey by surprise. I had no idea it was being done when [former Caps radio broadcaster] Ron Weber had done 500 straight games of broadcasting. I was asked to be on the ice with him, and I said, 'Why? Why do I have to be out there with him?' I was told that Mr. Pollin wanted me out there, so I said, 'Okay, no problem.' I remember being out there, and the lights had all dimmed and the spotlight was on. It was supposed to be on Ron, who was already in his broadcast position. So the spotlight is on Ron, and I'm like, 'Great, let's get out of here.' But Ron pulls this jersey out that he'd been hiding in his jacket and he starts reading this spiel about me and retiring my jersey. I had no idea what to say at that time. It caught me totally off guard and by surprise. All I could manage, shaking in my boots, was, 'Thank you.' It was heartfelt, but that was all I could get out.
"Not in a million years would I have thought that could happen, yet it was happening to me. I don't fit into the category with Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito and those guys. No way. But here it was, happening to me. But I will always, always have a special place in my heart for the Washington Capitals and Abe Pollin."
The end of his playing career marked the beginning of many new careers for Labre with the Capitals. He served as an assistant coach, a broadcaster, a scout and as director of community relations. In 1995, he became director of special programs for both the Capitals and the NBA's Washington Wizards (nee Bullets). Throughout his post-playing career, he also served as a youth and adult hockey coach and was the area's unofficial ambassador for hockey. He has spread the gospel of hockey far and wide throughout the area over the last 25 years. Now, his days with the organization are nearing an end, and he can look back with pride on a multitude of accomplishments in so many aspects of the game. And the guy that brought him here in the first place is also proud of Labre.
Hockey Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt was the general manager who conducted that expansion draft in June of 1974. Schmidt, who won two Stanley Cups as a player and two as a general manager with the Boston Bruins, had a short tenure as the Capitals GM. But he brought Labre to the nation's capital, and he's glad he did.
"All I can say is that Yvon Labre is a wonderful guy," says the 81-year-old Schmidt, now living in retirement outside Boston. "When I had Yvon, there wasn’t any doubt that he was giving me 125% percent regardless of what was happening; good, bad or otherwise. He’s always been in the back of my mind, and the fact that he’s still there with the Caps is great. They couldn’t have picked a better guy for the good of the game and the good of the franchise."
Over the years, the Caps have had some great and not-so-great teams. But one constant has been woven into the fabric of the organization -- the Capitals have developed and maintained a reputation as a hard-working team that opponents dread facing. That holds true to this day, and Labre is the fiber of that fabric that stretches back to the very beginning of that proud tradition.
Labre is not sure what his future holds; he is mulling over a few possibilities for future employment. "It's time," he says, simply, of severing his ties with the organization. Labre still plans on continuing to play an active role in the team's alumni organization and will also continue in his role as the area's unofficial amateur hockey ambassador.He will also begin yet another career with the Capitals, this time as a fan. He'll still be in attendance at many Capitals home games. If you're lucky enough to be seated next to him, lend an ear and listen to the wealth of stories he can tell. And look up to the rafters and pay homage to the number seven sweater that hangs there. That's where it all began. Yvon Labre will be missed, but that sweater ensures that Yvon Labre will be remembered.
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