Whirlwind time culminates with heroic accolades for Charline Labonte

Despite the heartbreak of an overtime loss in the Clarkson Cup championship game against archrival Boston, All-World goaltender Charline Labonte earned the admiration of teammates and opponents alike. In the opening round of the Clarkson Cup playoffs, Labonte recorded back-to-back shutouts against a highly potent Calgary Inferno offensive unit.

Facing 27 shots from the Boston Blades in the Clarkson Cup championship game, her efforts were essential in providing the Stars with an opportunity to force overtime. With seven shutouts of postseason play, the Blades would eventually figure out Labonte.

Despite the overtime loss, Labonte allowed one of the most historic goals in CWHL history, as Janine Weber became the first European to score a Clarkson Cup winning goal. For her heroic efforts in a very strong postseason, Labonte was recognized as the Clarkson Cup’s MVP. Statistically, her postseason was the finest, having made a tournament best 87 saves and .967 save percentage, while also registering a Goals Against Average of just 0.99.

Momentum was certainly high for Labonte heading into the postseason. Of note, she was recognized as the recipient of the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award. Her 1.89 GAA, 380 saves and .927 save percentage reprsented a great season that was outdone only by Boston’s Genevieve Lacasse, who clinched the regular season goaltending title with a 1.68 GAA.

All smiles at the Press Conference where the Montreal Canadiens announce their support of the CWHL's Montreal Stars (Photo credit: Jess Desjardins)

All smiles at the Press Conference where the Montreal Canadiens announce their support of the CWHL’s Montreal Stars (Photo credit: Jess Desjardins)

Emotions were definitely high for Labonte heading into the Clarkson Cup title game. Not only was it the final game of CWHL co-founder Lisa Marie Breton-Lebreux’s career, but Labonte had a chance at history. A Clarkson Cup win would have made her the 14th woman to earn Triple Gold Club for Women status (a prestige that includes IIHF World Gold and a Winter Games Gold Medal).

Although such an outcome eluded Labonte, the last 13 months has represented a series of many smaller victories that culminate in an impressive body of work, making her a role model in ways that extend beyond the game. In the aftermath of an emotional gold medal win at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Labonte went public, declaring a same-sex preference. It would prove to be a very proud moment, as her courage was met with praise.

Having engaged in a relationship with Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, it was an ideal rebuttal to the anti-gay legislation that caused controversy in Sochi. With so many other athletes upset about the legislation, it was only fitting that Labonte’s relationship strengthened in Sochi.

Since then, the two have supported each other in many ways. When Labonte made history by serving as a captain in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, Bucsis was in the stands showing her support. By season’s end, the CWHL experienced another milestone as the Montreal Canadiens announced a financial commitment to the Stars. Among the members of the Stars at the press conference, Labonte was on-hand, fielding questions from the media.

In March 2015, Bucsis and Labonte would speak at Cornell University. Two months later, Cornell hockey player would be among the architects of the university’s “We Don’t Say” campaign, certainly gaining inspiration from their visit. There is no question that as the seasons progress, many more Canadian athletes, plus young women from other walks of life, shall continue to draw inspiration from Bucsis and Labonte’s remarkable year.

Charline Labonte’s decision makes her an even bigger role model

With an announcement that made national news throughout Canada, long-time Canadian national women’s hockey team member Charline Labonte declared her same-sex relationship with speed skater Anastasia Buscis. Sharing her story was a heartwarming and dignified moment that captured the hearts of many devoted hockey fans.

This year alone, Labonte has followed in the footsteps of two other world-class women’s hockey players that have declared their same-sex preference. Caitlin Cahow (whom Labonte played against in the championship game of the 2013 Clarkson Cup) made her announcement prior to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. She would serve on President Obama’s delegation at the Closing Ceremony for the Games, a direct rebuttal to Russia’s anti-gay legislation, while providing encouragement for other LGBT athletes competing at Sochi.

Jayna Hefford, a teammate of Labonte for over a decade on the Canadian national team, discussed her role of motherhood after the Games. Sharing her life with partner Kathleen Kauth, a 2006 Olympian and co-founder of the CWHL, the two have an infant girl named Isla.

Although Buscis declared her preference before the Games, Labonte chose to declare her feeling afterwards. In reflection, it was a move that needed to wait. With the appointment of Kevin Dineen as head coach before Christmas 2013, a difficult losing streak to the United States and a decision to change captains, Labonte’s announcement could have possibly been one more distraction for a team that many in the media labeled as “dysfunctional”.

Heading into Sochi’s Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, Labonte mentioned in her story how she stood beside Buscis. Despite the feelings of unease over athlete safety and political tensions over the anti-gay legislation, there is no question that the presence of Buscis provided a sense of comfort and support for Labonte.

As a side note, Labonte shares another heartwarming tale in her story. After Canada’s miraculous come-from-behind victory against the United States in the gold medal game, Buscis actually rode her bicycle to a McDonald’s in the Olympic Village. Having ordered 50 cheeseburgers and 50 packets of McNuggets for the entire women’s team, her heroic trek represented a kind gesture that was highly appreciated by Labonte and her teammates.

While there are likely many more female and male athletes that are part of the LGBT community, the reality is that it should not be seen as controversial or front-page news. While athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam certainly endured a media circus, coming out should be liberating and celebrated, not something to be dissected by society.

Realistically, it may take another generation before such things happen. In the meanwhile, everyone has a right to life their lives as they choose. The WNBA and WFA have had world-class athletes such as Sheryl Swoopes and Sami Grisafe declare their preferences. Such decisions have not diminished their careers. Instead, their courage to disclose such details is applauded. As does Labonte and Buscis deserve to be applauded. In hockey circles, women such as Cahow, Hefford and Labonte are courageous individuals. Just like Magic Johnson once turned his issues with being HIV positive into one of determination, raising global awareness about the issue, Labonte et al are helping challenge cultural norms, changing preconceived notions, while serving as a positive influence in helping a generation of women in hockey have the courage to be proud of who they are.