When Yvon Labre was playing hockey on an outdoor rink on San Francisco Street in Sudbury in the 1960s, he likely dreamed about competing for the Stanley Cup. When he finally made it to the NHL fulltime in 1974, however, he had to settle for a trash can.
As a member of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, one of the league’s newly minted expansion teams, the Sudbury native was part of the worst single season in NHL history. The Capitals finished their inaugural campaign with an abysmal record of 8-67-5.
The one bright spot on the season was when Washington picked up its lone road victory on March 28, 1975, against the California Golden Seals. Following the game, to mark the occasion, Capitals’ forward Tommy Williams picked up a metal trash can and had the team sign it.
Unbeknownst to Labre at the time, Williams and some of his teammates took the can out onto the ice at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and skated around with it like they had just won the championship.
“They were just having fun with it, because let’s face it, it was the only road win of the year and it wasn’t much fun that whole year,” Labre recently told Sudbury.com in an interview.
Forty-three years later, the Capitals have gone from hoisting a trash can to the Stanley Cup. This past Thursday, Washington defeated the Vegas Golden Knights to win their first championship in franchise history. Labre, who had been with the team since its inception, couldn’t be happier.
“I was very happy for the organization. I don’t have a tattoo of them, but it’s on my heart,” Labre reflected. “I was pretty excited to see this happen. It’s been one big party since they won it, and that’s good, they deserve it, especially Ovechkin. He’s tried and tried and tried, and this year he finally got it.”
Before joining the Capitals in 1974, Labre honed his hockey skills in Sudbury. After establishing himself as a top defenceman, he was drafted by the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey Association (now the OHL) in 1966.
As Labre was getting prepared to move to Toronto and take his game to the next level, tragedy struck his family. On June 20, 1966, his father, Wilfred, was killed working at Inco’s Garson Mine. Following his death, Yvon contemplated putting his hockey career on hiatus.
“I sat down with my mom and told her I would stay home, get a job and help the family, but she said to me, ‘You go, you try out and that way if you don’t make it, you won’t blame me for the rest of your life.’ God bless her soul,” Labre recalled.
With a heavy heart, Yvon heeded his mother’s words, packed his bags and left home. He played a year of Junior B for Markham Seal-A-Wax before joining the Marlboros in 1967. After two seasons on the blue line in Toronto, where he had been defence partners with future Hall of Famer Brad Park, Labre was selected 38th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft.
He spent the next season in Baltimore, playing for Pittsburgh’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, before making his NHL debut on November 22, 1970, against the Bruins. Unable to carve out a full time spot on the Penguins’ roster, however, Labre spent much of the next four seasons with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, where he was an integral part of the team’s Calder Cup championship in 1974.
Following Labre’s success with the Bears, he was nabbed by the Capitals in the expansion draft, where he would finally get the opportunity to become a full time NHLer. In Washington, Labre quickly became a fan favourite. In the team’s first game at home on Oct. 15, 1974, against the Kings, he scored less than five minutes into the second period, notching the first-ever home goal for the Capitals. The following season he was named captain, a position he would hold for the next three years, while regularly taking home the club’s Most Popular Player award.
The team only turned in eight victories in its inaugural season, but Labre felt fortunate to be playing at the sport’s highest level.
“Those early years were real struggles, but I worked my butt off to get to the National Hockey League,” he said.
As the years wore on, Washington continued to struggle to find success on the ice, but Labre was unwavering in determination. Despite battling through a series of knee injuries, he remained a fixture on the team’s blue line.
Labre’s nagging knees, however, quickly caught up to him. After undergoing a number of surgeries throughout his career and missing significant time for recovery, he felt he had no choice but to hang up his skates at the end of the 1980-81 season.
“I played for seven years and I would have played another seven more, but my knees, that was it. I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said.
Sensing that Labre’s time with the team was coming to an end that year, owner Abe Pollin honoured him during the club’s 500th game. As Labre recalls, Pollin asked him to accompany him out onto the ice because they were going to do a presentation for play-by-play announcer Ron Weber, who was broadcasting his 500th game with the club. Following the recognition of Weber’s achievements in the broadcast booth, Pollin then turned toward Labre.
“He opened up his jacket and pulled out my jersey. That’s when Pollin went on with a speech about how I was the heart of the team and then he retired my jersey right then and there,” Labre said.
Of course, he was still on the team at the time and played the game in the jersey that had just been retired, a fact that Labre still chuckles about to this day.
After Labre retired at the end of the season, the Capitals formally retired his jersey. It was Nov. 7, 1981, making him the first player in franchise history to receive the honour. Although Labre had endured much heartache with the team, seeing his number raised to the rafters demonstrated that his efforts were not in vain.
“The nicest thing that’s probably ever happened to me in my life because of the grinding and all the work I did,” Labre said. “At the ceremony, I dedicated it to all the muckers, the workers, and the grinders, to all the guys who just won’t get this opportunity. It was the best moment of my life.”
Following his playing career with the Capitals, Labre stuck around with the organization for nearly two decades, serving as an assistant coach and later as the director of community relations. Today, he lives just north of Baltimore, where he’s a Capitals’ season ticket holder.
Labre actually attended the team’s last home matchup, Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, but his fondest moments of the post-season were watching the games in Sudbury with his three brothers.
“We watched the hockey games together. I never got the chance to do that with them because I never really went back to Sudbury to live,” he said.
When they weren’t watching the games together, they spent time on Red Deer Lake and up north on Onaping Lake for some fishing. Labre expects to be back up in Sudbury in the fall, but you can be sure that he will not miss the Capitals’ first home of the season, when they raise their Stanley Cup champions banner.
Mike Commito is a writer and Team Historian for the Sudbury Wolves. His first book, Hockey 365: Daily Stories From the Ice, hits shelves on Sept. 22, 2018. Follow Mike on Twitter @mikecommito.