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Learning on the fly

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
Making the jump from major junior hockey to the professional ranks can be a somewhat intimidating move for young players. Simply joining a new team in a new league can be difficult, but add in the dilemma of trying to learn a new language at the same time, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

At least in theory you do.

Manitoba Moose forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie is proving it can be done as he’s been one of the team’s biggest surprises this season, and he’s doing it as an AHL rookie who has never really spoken English before.

“It’s been coming along good,” said Moose head coach Scott Arniel, in reference to Labrie’s new linguistic skills. “You have to be careful how quick you speak to him, but he’s coming along and I’ve noticed a big difference from training camp until now, he’s caught on to a lot of things. But he is learning on the fly as we go here.”

His quick grasp of a second language has been impressive, but it doesn’t compare to the 20-year-old’s on-ice progress. In his first 10 games played with the Moose, Labrie collected four goals and four assists, alongside 23 penalty minutes, tying him for fourth in team scoring. Even more notable than his great start is how comfortable the left winger is on the power play, having scored two of his goals with the man advantage.

“I’m happy but I’m not surprised at how I’ve played so far,” said Labrie. “I am trying to work as hard as I can and I am learning a lot so far.”

Like many other young Moose, Labrie has veteran Mike Keane to thank for his early development. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has been instrumental in helping Labrie get accustomed to his new team.

“I am learning a lot from Mike Keane, I play with him a lot. I do what he says and I give a good effort. And I think it’s just that during practice I am trying to learn more things and it helps me during games.”

As of Nov. 9, Labrie sat tied for eleventh in AHL rookie scoring, something that not even Arniel, who was impressed with Labrie during training camp, could have predicted. The Moose coach believes that the 6’2”, 212-pound forward is just starting to realize his potential.

“I think a big thing with PC is that he’s such a strong guy,” said Arniel. “If you watch him in practice you can see what a strong skater he is. He’s a real powerful guy, he gets to the net, he gets to the corners and battles and comes out of corners with pucks and he has a nose for the net.

“The big thing that we’re really starting to see with him is that he’s got good hands. He can make plays, he just made some real nice passes for some goals on the road, he also knows to get to the net and find rebounds and he’s good at deflecting pucks. He’s a big physical guy and he has an edge to him and he knows that if there’s some tough stuff that has to be looked after, that he’s one of those guys. He’s a scrappy kid that’s really been a good surprise.”

A native of Baie-Comeau, Quebec, Labrie started playing hockey at the age of five, falling in love with the game instantly. As an only child he didn’t have any siblings to battle, so the youngster saved his aggression for when his skates were laced up and it enabled him to become a physical scoring threat.

At 17-years-old Labrie began playing in the Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League for the Coaticook Frontaliers. He spent two seasons in the QJAHL from 2003-2005, accumulating 32 points and 155 penalty minutes in 61 games, but it wasn’t until the following year that Labrie would truly make an impact.

As a member of the Restigouche Tigers in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League, Labrie exploded for 86 points and 153 penalty minutes in 53 games, by far the highest output of his career. His breakout season led to interest from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team in his hometown, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, and Labrie was dealt to them at the start of the 2005-06 playoffs.

He scored twice and added two helpers in four playoff games with Baie-Comeau, before averaging just under a point a game (63 points in 68 games) for Drakkar last season. Another impressive campaign led to Labrie’s first professional contract as he signed with the Canucks in July 2007.

A great showing at Vancouver’s rookie camp, which Labrie describes as “the best experience of his life,” helped the gentle giant get to where he is today, but he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“My speed needs to be better,” said Labrie. “My acceleration on the start, I need to practice that. I don’t need to create turnovers at the blueline, I need to practice that too. And I think when I am around the goal, I have to protect the puck with my body. And I need to keep playing physical in the corners.”

Those familiar with PC’s style of play have thrown out comparisons to that of a young Todd Bertuzzi, but that simply isn’t the case right now. Labrie has proven in years past that he can be a detrimental forward but even comparing him to former Moose right winger Lee Goren is premature, according to Arniel.

“Not yet. I think that Lee is such a veteran savvy kind of guy and Pierre hasn’t gotten there yet on the smarts side of things, just because you learn that stuff the more you play. The longer you play you learn tricks on how to handle defencemen, how to do some things around the net; I think that everything is new to Pierre and the pace is probably the biggest thing. He has the potential to be that type of player and if anything, he might be a more powerful skater than Lee is, so it’s a good comparison, but it’s real premature to throw that label on him.”

Making the leap to Manitoba has been a big step for Labrie, but it’s certainly one he’s making the most of. It’s very doubtful he’ll get called up from Vancouver this season, but if Labrie continues to develop at the pace he has for the last few years, the Canucks may have a Bertuzzi-esk type player back in their line-up before long.

The Incredible (Prospect) Hulk
Manitoba Moose
Prospects Central
Every Prospect Was Kung-Fu Fighting
Getting Acquainted

  86 - Career high points in 54 games in 2005-06 with the MJAHL

  212 - Pounds of Pierre-Cedric Labrie

8 - Points as a Manitoba Moose in 10 games this season

7/9/2007 - Signed by the Vancouver Canucks

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