Retired Olympic champion Labbé helping shape next generation of Canadian soccer stars

·5 min read
Retired goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe is seen waving to the crowd during her last game with Canada's women's national soccer team in a friendly against Nigeria in Vancouver in April. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Retired goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe is seen waving to the crowd during her last game with Canada's women's national soccer team in a friendly against Nigeria in Vancouver in April. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Rather than taking it easy in retirement, Stephanie Labbé decided to hit the road.

After playing in her last game as a professional in April, the former Canadian women's team goalkeeper embarked on a cross-country tour over the last two months in which she held youth player clinics in more than 30 communities for boys and girls ages nine to 13.

Labbé, a 35-year-old from Edmonton, hoped that the clinics inspired the next generation of young girls who'll one day play for Canada. Just as important, the tour allowed her to connect with Canadian fans on a more intimate level and celebrate the women's team's gold-medal achievement at last summer's Tokyo Olympics.

"We won gold in empty stadiums [because of COVID], and we really didn't have that chance to come back and celebrate with Canadians. We had a few celebration games, but it was the tail end of the pandemic and we weren't really able to go into the community and share it with people outside of those games," Labbé told CBC Sports.

"That was something that pushed me to do this — to travel across the country, to get into communities and give these kids an opportunity to share in the excitement and joy of this medal. I'll never be able to put into words what it's like when I see the smiles on the kids' faces, it makes it all worth it."

WATCH l Labbé shared love of the game with young Nova Scotia players:

Vocal advocate

A vocal advocate for the advancement of women's soccer, Labbé isn't content to simply rest on her laurels now that her playing career is over. Instead, she plans to pay things forward and use her public status to push for the launch of a Canadian professional women's league.

Canada is one of a very few top-ranked countries in the world that doesn't have a top-level domestic division. Labbé argues that Canada loses so many players in the 18-to-22 age range who haven't caught on with the national team because of the lack of professional opportunities at home.

"We need to keep growing the women's game in Canada. It's not enough to just watch us play every four years [at the Olympics or World Cup]. We need to give players the opportunity to be seen week in and week out," Labbé said.

"With the domestic league, there's been a lot of talk about Canada Soccer supporting the idea, but it's been talked about for years. It's time for action and time for it to happen. The investment in this has to happen now and it can't be delayed anymore. We need to continue to push for it to get this done sooner rather than later."

In between tour stops, Labbé reconnected with her former teammates in June when Canada played South Korea in an international friendly in Toronto.

The former shot stopper hasn't been in the public eye as much since she earned her 86th and final cap in 2-0 win over Nigeria in Vancouver on April 8. But it was clear by the reaction she received in Toronto that Canadian fans haven't forgotten about her.

"To be in the stands and to see how much I was recognized, that really continues to remind me how much of an impact this team made last summer. I was never a recognizable face on the team, so to experience that first-hand was quite interesting. It's exciting because I get to watch the team with pure enjoyment and to really be a fan and not have any regrets or negative feelings about retiring. I'm really grateful for that," Labbé offered.

WATCH | Canada's women's soccer team bids farewell to Labbé: 

Sheridan filling Labbé's gloves

It would appear that Labbé has left the Canadian team in good hands. Former backup Kailen Sheridan, who served as Labbé's understudy for the better part of six years, posted a clean sheet against the South Koreans while her former teammate watched from the stands.

Sheridan, a 27-year-old from Pickering, Ont., followed that up by recording three more shutouts at last month's CONCACAF W Championship, in which she helped Canada qualify for the 2023 World Cup. Sheridan was also named the tournament's top goalkeeper.

"Kailen is an extremely talented goalkeeper. She's proven herself at the professional level. She's been phenomenal in the NWSL for many years. I'm excited to see that consistency come through with the national team, and that will take time. It's not just going to happen overnight. But she has all the tools she needs to be that same consistent, dominating goalkeeper at international level, so I'm excited to see her growth there," Labbé said.

Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Playing opportunities were few and far between for Sheridan when Labbé was in the picture. She had to patiently bide her time, and she only ascended to the No. 1 goalkeeping position after Labbé announced her retirement.

But there was never any bitterness on the part of Sheridan, who considers Labbé a close friend who helped mentor her after she made her national team debut in 2016.

"It's really easy to get into a place where you compare yourself to people, and I remember having a really in-depth conversation with her; it was a really honest conversation where she said, 'You should never compare yourself to me, and I'm not going to compare myself to you.' Because ultimately, she knew that we were never gonna be like one another, but that there were still things we could take from each other," Sheridan told CBC Sports.

"That mentality has been why she's been looked at as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and why she is who she is. That's something I'll hope to continue on in my career with Canada."

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