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Second Round

Labanc coming into his own for Sharks in playoffs

New York City roots, work ethic help forward thrive

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Nowhere, driving into the New York City borough of Staten Island, is there a sign that says you're entering the home of Kevin Labanc.

"No, I still have a long way to go," the San Jose Sharks forward said, grinning. "But it's always fun coming back home, staying close to my family and friends. I take a lot of pride in where I'm from."

For now, Labanc is the adopted son of San Jose, where he is enjoying an excellent Stanley Cup Playoffs. Through seven first-round games against the Vegas Golden Knights and two against the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, the 23-year-old has six points (three goals, three assists) and is plus-1, averaging a healthy 15:49 of third-line ice time per game.

 

[RELATED: Full Sharks vs. Avalanche series coverage]

 

The Sharks and Avalanche are tied 1-1 in the best-of-7 series with Game 3 to be played at Pepsi Center on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

Labanc's road to the NHL, and his three seasons since he arrived in 2016-17, have been neither conventional nor without difficulty. But anchored by strong family values, with a work ethic instilled in him by his parents, he has disproven critics and proven much to himself.

Skating on the right side of veteran center Joe Thornton, with Marcus Sorensen on the left, Labanc is an offensive threat and a much-improved player without the puck, having shored up his defensive game in the past few months. He's an impact forward playing the best hockey of his young life.

"It's just working hard," Labanc said. "Be the first guy on the puck, be like a dog on a bone. That's the major thing [Thornton] taught me. Even when I was in the doghouse, so to speak, [Thornton] just said, 'You've just got to keep working, keep your head calm and know that you'll get out of there. Just never stop working.' "

The doghouse was Labanc's address in early January, his ice time sharply shaved for a stretch when his defensive game was in disrepair. But counselled by Thornton, known by all as Jumbo, he battled his way out of it.

On Friday, coach Peter DeBoer remembered asking Labanc early in the new calendar year, " 'Can we trust you two or three months from now when the playoffs come to be on the ice at critical times, and can you help us win?' That was the challenge and he's done that."

It's been a steep learning curve for Labanc, who was selected by the Sharks in the sixth round (No. 171) of the 2014 NHL Draft. He'd skated many miles before playing his first NHL game in 2016, stops including the junior New Jersey Rockets, then USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League and finally the San Jose Barracuda, the Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate.

Labanc's journey began as a 14-year-old playing for coach Bob Thornton with the Rockets, pushed every day in practice and games by boys a year older.

"Kevin was set up to succeed," said Thornton, no relation to the Sharks veteran. "I put him on the top line and the power play because he was so gifted offensively. I've really never seen a player as much a hound on the puck as he is.

"His work ethic and his shot are what have really amazed me. I always knew he had a good shot, I still tell him to this day to make sure he gets four to 10 shots a game whenever possible. It started to happen more when he played in Barrie. Those last two years he was in the OHL, he put up big numbers and had a lot of highlight goals from his wrist shot."

Indeed, Labanc had 234 points (70 goals, 164 assists) from 2014-16 in the OHL playing for Barrie coach Dale Hawerchuk, the Hall of Fame sniper who scored 518 goals in the NHL.

"The goals Kevin is scoring now, his release, the puck is like a slingshot on his stick," Thornton said. "He's scoring some really big goals. When he was younger he shot the puck, missed the net and wouldn't do it as much. Every year his shot is getting better and more accurate. When I text him, I just say, 'Keep shooting.' "

As impressed as Thornton was by Labanc's spectacular "complete package" goal in Game 1 against the Avalanche, he absolutely was dazzled by Labanc's four-point game in the Sharks' stunning 5-4 Game 7 comeback overtime victory that eliminated the Golden Knights.

"Kevin's compete level from the first shift until the end in overtime was unbelievable," he said. "That was the best game I've seen him play, period."

Tony Samms, an assistant for Thornton with the Rockets, worked with Labanc and others on the ice and during summer fitness and strength training. The latter relationship flourishes to this day.

Video: COL@SJS, Gm1: Labanc dekes past Rantanen, roofs goal

"Sometimes we think of stubbornness as a negative quality," Samms said. "I see it as a positive in Kevin. Most elite players are stubborn. They know what they want and will do anything to get it. In the back of his mind I'm sure Kevin has always said he wants to be an NHL player.

"He's brought that attitude, you can see it in his game since he was 14, that he just wanted more. As a trainer it was hard for me to get him out of the gym. That hasn't stopped."

Labanc's deliberate path to the Sharks began in a small city in Slovakia, before he was born. It was here that his father, Milan, was a defenseman in the early 1990s, and it was from here that Milan and his wife, Anika, struggling to make ends meet, made a leap of faith in 1994 and immigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn.

Diane Labanc was born to the couple in 1994; their second child, Kevin, a year later. They would move to Staten Island, other members of the family arriving from overseas, as many as 10 living under one crowded roof at one time, and Labanc fondly recalls the Saturday morning games on a local roller-hockey rink, most of the extended family taking part.

By the age of 6, Labanc was on skates, learning the game from his father.

"I started out as a defenseman," he said. "My dad knew how to play the game and he was like, 'All right, I'll teach you everything I know.' One day I was playing forward and I don't know how it even happened."

He says with a grin that he's never seen his father play elite hockey, any video trace of that perhaps back in Slovakia.

"But when I go there I'll definitely going to have to see it," Labanc said. "It's nice to hear the stories. He was a hard worker, that was a big thing for him. He liked to handle the puck."

Then, with a laugh: "Maybe he overplays the stories a little bit but they're still fun to hear. Even now he's still calling me and telling about my game and giving me a little advice and some pointers. It's awesome that we have that kind of relationship. He knows me best. He knows when to push me, when to lay off me, when to give me a kick in the butt. Even my mom, she's an assistant coach too. Our whole family is involved."

Milan Labanc is a construction worker, commuting to New York for his myriad jobs; Anika works in a doctor's office. The couple have worked overnight shifts and held multiple jobs to provide for their children, their work ethic engrained in Kevin from boyhood.

Samms says that Labanc's family "set a good example for him and now he's carrying the torch."

Nine games into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, his father and mother having seen him live in Las Vegas with another trip hopefully in the works, Labanc pinches himself during hockey's "most exciting time of the year." He never forgets that he's on hockey's grandest stage, deflecting praise to teammates and coaches and saying that he owes so much to his parents who sacrificed greatly to give him the chance to live this incredible dream.

"Working hard day and night, you just see that as a kid and you want to mimic it in whatever you do, in school and hockey, just be that hard a worker," Labanc said. "I feel that it would be a disrespect to my parents for all the work that they've done if I didn't do the same.

"I know everything they've done for me and how hard it was for me to get to where I am. That's why I want to keep working hard and make myself and my parents and my whole family proud of what I've accomplished, what we've accomplished together."

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