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‘Steph is one of the greats’: Labbé’s legacy lives on with Canada

Labbé and her Canadian teammates celebrate their gold-medal win over Sweden at the Tokyo Olympics in August. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Stephanie Labbé was inspiring others years before the world knew her name.

When Washington Spirit goalkeeper Devon Kerr was 12 years old, she asked her parents to drive her to watch the Canadian national team practice close to her home outside of Toronto. She sat on the edge of her dad’s truck, watching a young Labbé dominate the goalkeeper training session with confidence.

“Everything about her was just very positive and bright and happy, so it definitely gave somebody like me, a little 12-year-old, a lot of inspiration of what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Kerr said.

Labbé’s influence extended even further as she led Canada to their second-straight Olympic bronze medal in 2016 and historic gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the club level, she won the NWSL championship and NWSL Shield in 2019 with the North Carolina Courage.

On Jan. 19, the 2022 FIFA Best Goalkeeper finalist announced her retirement from soccer. And on Friday, Labbé will play in her final game with Canada during a Celebration Tour friendly against Nigeria in Vancouver.

“She’s been an absolutely unbelievable teammate for Canada and around the world,” said Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

Thirteen years after Kerr watched Labbé in training camp, as her career winds down, the goalkeeper’s confidence hasn’t waned.

In Tokyo, Labbé led Canada through shootouts in the quarterfinal and final despite suffering a rib injury in the first group match of the tournament against Japan. Before leaving that game, she bounced to her feet to stand in for a penalty kick, which she saved.

After missing the second game against Chile, Labbé did everything possible to get back on the field for the rest of the Olympics, posting shutouts against Brazil and the U.S.

“She pulls off a big save, and I think the whole team then was lifted, so for me, she was critical to the gold medal,” Priestman said.

Ahead of the gold-medal shootout against Sweden, Priestman huddled her players together and said, “Listen, Steph did it before. She’ll do it again.”

“Big players rise in big moments, and I knew she had it in her,” Priestman said.

In possession, Labbé is expertly tactical. Her composure on the ball and calming approach in communication have helped young center backs like Vanessa Gilles (16 caps) make a smooth transition onto the national team.

“Steph, especially, is one of the best leaders that I’ve ever been around and is just able to bring confidence to the rest of the team,” said Gilles. “I think that’s a quality that’s very rare and hard to train. We have a lot of great leaders here in Canada, and Steph is one of the greats, for sure.”

Much of Labbé’s leadership is heard.

During games, after starting lineup photos and the kickoff coin toss, she is known to gather her Canadian teammates in a huddle and give them a rah-rah speech. In meetings, where the national team builds its culture and hones its vision, Labbé is one of the most vocal contributors.

“One of my favorite teammates, one of the best goalkeepers that we’ve had for Canada,” said defensive midfielder Desiree Scott. “I think just to see her growth over the last four to eight years, you just see her coming into her own. She’s fully herself.”

“She’s played such a huge role for this team and has kept us in so many games and helped us win so many games,” said forward Nichelle Prince. “Her leadership off the field is something that has gotten us to the top.”

Priestman hopes to see Labbé’s mental strength live on as Canada moves into Concacaf qualifying for next summer’s World Cup. Sheridan will take the reins in net alongside Erin McLeod.

“[Steph’s] just been such a mentor to me and a lot of the other goalkeepers here,” said Sheridan. “We’re so excited to celebrate her this weekend, and honestly, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

When Sheridan reflects on what she’s learned from Labbé, being a good teammate is the first thing that comes to mind. The team’s open communication on the field starts with the goalkeepers, and Labbé set the best kind of example.

Labbé told Priestman on a phone call ahead of the upcoming friendlies that she doesn’t want the Celebration Tour weekend to be about her. So, Priestman filled her in on the vision for camp and how Labbé can help drive the team’s culture forward. Canada is taking a blank-slate approach with its 2023 World Cup preparations, focusing on evaluating new talent and assembling an offensive-minded team.

Kerr, who watched Labbé from the back of her dad’s truck 13 years ago, is one of the top goalkeepers on Priestman’s radar. Kerr was in Arizona training in the offseason when she saw Labbé’s retirement announcement in the news. An hour after Priestman did a press conference, Kerr got the call that she was being invited to camp.

Labbé, ever vocal about creating more opportunities for women athletes, intends to push for the creation of a professional women’s soccer league in Canada in retirement.

“She’s trailblazing a path for up-and-coming goalkeepers to come into a place that feels welcoming and safe and really productive,” Kerr said.

“I feel so ready to be excited at this point in my life about what’s next, what’s after my soccer career,” Labbé said in a video on Thursday. “I really feel like I’ve given everything on the field. I’ve given everything that I can. Blood, sweat and tears.”

Labbé’s farewell match will take place one province over from her hometown of Edmonton, at BC Place in Vancouver, where she’ll inspire the next generation from the field one last time.

“We want her to go out on the highest of highs that we possibly can, and we want BC Place to be screaming her name for 90 minutes straight,” Sheridan said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.