Charline Labonté hasn’t been a part of Team Canada her entire life – it just seems that way.
When the goaltender made her national team debut with Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team at the 2000 3 Nations Tournament, 18 of her current teammates
hadn’t yet reached high school, and the youngest, Emily Clark, was a few weeks away from turning five years old.
Her first game action with Canada’s National Women’s Team came in early 2001, and her first IIHF Women’s World Championship was four years after that, a
silver-medal performance in Linköping, Sweden.
After a few years of being left off the roster, and serving as the alternate goaltender at the 2004 women’s worlds in Halifax, N.S., Labonté burst onto the
scene, combining with Kim St-Pierre for one of the greatest goaltending performances in tournament history; the Canadians did not allow a goal in the
tournament – five consecutive shutouts – before falling to the U.S. in a shootout in the gold medal game.
Fast forward almost 16 years, and Labonté is strapping on her pads for an eighth world championship as a two-time world champion and three-time Olympic
gold medallist. Only St-Pierre, with nine, has played in more women’s worlds.
Now 33, the Boisbriand, Que., native admits she has more games behind her than ahead of her, and after missing out on last year’s tournament, she’s taking
the time in Kamloops, B.C., to enjoy the little things.
“I started when I was 17, and now I’m 33, and it’s flown by,” she says. “I know I’m getting towards the end of my career, and I’m really, really trying to
not take anything for granted, because it really flies by.
“We have some pretty incredible people around here, and I really want to enjoy everyone, and get to know everyone, even the kids that I’ve never met
before. I’m trying to spend some time with them and see what they’re all about, not just as hockey players, but as people, because in my head that’s what
you remember at the end: the relationships, and the experiences we’ve shared with each other.”
There are few relationships that mean as much to Labonté as the one she has with St-Pierre; the duo shared the Team Canada net for close to a decade, and
Labonté ranks second in games played (59), wins (43) and shutouts (16), all behind only St-Pierre in the all-time annals.
While the competition was fierce, and both wanted the No. 1 nod, there was mutual admiration above all else.
“It was not easy competing for the same spot,” St-Pierre says. “But we were able to remain really good friends all the way through all the world
championships and Olympics. I think that’s a key to success in the program; the goalies always want to be the best, but with Charlie, we were really good
friends, working out together, playing together, training together, and we were always hoping for the best together for the team.”
When Labonté joined the national team in the early 2000s, St-Pierre already had a few years under her belt, including three world championships, so it was
easy for Labonté to lean on her fellow Quebecer for advice.
“She was a role model growing up,” Labonté says. “That’s funny to say now because she is one of my best friends, but I have learned so much from her. Kim
doesn’t talk much, she’s a quiet person – very funny when you get to know her – but it’s more her actions, and her confidence. Just being so humble, but
being one of the best goalies in the world, she had a huge impact with me.”
Now, though, it’s Labonté making the impact.
She is the veteran among the three Team Canada netminders in Kamloops, joining 21-year-old Emerance Maschmeyer and 23-year-old Erica Howe in the Canadian
crease, and is the one being leaned on.
“I guess I didn’t really realize it until not too long ago, because I’ve always been kind of like the kid,” Labonté says. “Now it’s a like flash forward,
and ‘Oh gosh, I am the veteran.’
“It’s something that’s so important because I was taken care of when I was a kid, and I want to give back to Howie and Masch because they are amazing
people, and amazing goalies, and they’re the future of the team, so anything I can do for them, to talk about anything they need to talk about, to calm
them down and give them confidence, I think that’s part of my role.”
Team Canada staff paired Labonté and Maschmeyer, who had never played together, as roommates during pre-worlds camp in Penticton, B.C., giving the young
netminder a chance to pick the brain of one of the best.
“If I had any questions she was answering them,” Maschmeyer says. “She’s a great goalie with a lot of experience, so I look up to her. She has been very
supportive; days like [the tournament-opening game against the U.S.], where it could be frustrating to her to not play, but she was super supportive,
cheering me on, giving me glove taps, so I really appreciate that.”
Labonté is more than happy to play the mentor role, but the competitive fire still burns, and she wants to be the one in the Team Canada goal for the big
game just as much as Maschmeyer and Howe.
And with her experience, and success, who would bet against her?
“I’ve had the chance to play in some big games, and been around the team for a while, so I think the experience kicks in, and it’s a comforting feeling to
know you’ve been there before in pretty much all the situations,” she says. “So it’s like ‘bring it on,’ because I’ve been there before.”