Whether you are a high first-round pick or an undrafted player, getting that call and playing in your first NHL game is something never forgotten.
There were a few times in the last eight years, Pierre Cedric Labrie wondered if he would ever get a chance to have that experience. When he got the message to head to Montreal last Friday, it was like a dream.
“For 15 minutes,” Labrie said, smiling, “I was shaking.”
Labrie,the 6-foot-2, 218-pound wing, signed a new, two-way, two-year contract Dec. 29, after his strong play with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL, and made his NHL debut Saturday in Montreal. That culminated a long journey that shows his perseverance and just why he is with the Lightning.
Labrie registered one hit in five shifts and 3:41, but enjoyed every bit of the night with 12-15 friends and family making the eight-hour trip from his home town of Baie-Comeau, Quebec.
“The first period I was really nervous,” said Labrie, 25. “But after that I just figured it was another hockey game. I had to do the job and just focus on the little details.”
Labrie had six goals and 19 points in 29 games in Norfolk with a plus-17, playing primarily on a line with Trevor Smith and Cory Conacher.
Those aren’t quite the numbers expected out of Labrie when he was signed to a tryout after enforcer Mitch Fritz was injured early last season. At the time, Labrie was standing at the crossroads of his career for the second time at age 23.
Labrie played for the Coaticock Frontaliers, the farm team of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior League, in 2003-04 and had all his expenses paid. When he got cut from the Remparts the next preseason, he had to pay his own way and decided to go home.
“There were a couple times when I was thinking that it was over,” Labrie said. “I just told myself, I’m going to have fun and enjoy hockey.”
He played in a local senior league for a few months before getting a chance with the Restigouche Tigers of the Maritime Junior A League. Labrie had 43 goals, 43 assists and 153 penalty minutes for the Tigers in 2005-06 and earned a shot with Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the Quebec Major Junior League.
Labrie adjusted smoothly, recording 35 goals and 28 assists and 113 penalty minutes and was signed by the Vancouver Canucks to a three-year, entry-level contract. He was assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, but at the time the team had players from other organizations as well.
“I was a healthy scratch, not playing a lot, so it was hard to get better,” Labrie said. “But I just kept pushing.”
Labrie had 18 goals and 39 points in three seasons with the Moose before being traded to St. Louis and playing 16 games with Peoria of the AHL.
When the season was over, Labrie was without a team. He tried out for San Antonio of the AHL and was cut. He spent two days in a hotel room in San Antonio waiting for a call.
When Fritz went down with an injury, Norfolk needed a forward with size to take his place and gave Labrie a tryout. Labrie fought eight times in his first 15 games and performed his role well.
“But we started to find out that wasn’t the only thing he had in his skill set,” Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said. “When he gets going he can really skate and he’s a man below the dots. He’s tough to play against. He’s really shed the enforcer-only tag to become a well-rounded player.”
Labrie had seven goals and 26 points last season with a plus-14.
“[Cooper] gave me so much confidence,” Labrie said. “It just built from there.
“They didn’t look at my background. They decided to see what’s going on with my game right now. They made me a better hockey player last year.”
Labrie focused on his defensive game and he said the rest fell into place.
“He had to find his niche and find an organization that believed in him,” Cooper said. “He earned his spot. Maybe it was the growing experiences he had gained from other teams along the way. … He’s taken the opportunity and run with it.”
Labrie said he had a chance to play with Mike Brown and Alexandre Bolduc, two NHLers, in Manitoba and he compared it to playing the veteran Smith and the rookie Conacher.
“I just give them the puck and they know what to do,” Labrie said.
Cooper said Labrie has been a positive presence in the locker room. Lightning coach Guy Boucher added after practice Monday that Labrie was known as one of the most popular players in the Norfolk room and was a “great team guy.”
Like many players of Labrie’s ilk, he had to find the ingredients to make him successful. Now he has the chance to go even further.
“It’s been great to be a part of and to watch him grow as a player – on and off the ice,” Cooper said. “He’s put it all together and packaged it into what it is today.”