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The McGill Martlets' hockey opponents can be forgiven for squeezing their sticks a bit too tightly when they break in on goaltender Charline Labonté. For while the netminder on the number one ranked women's team in Canadian interuniversity hockey proudly wears the McGill crest on her jersey, her mask is adorned with a Team Canada logo, the symbol of women's hockey greatness.
Labonté has been a member of Canada's national women's team since 2005. The few that have managed to put the puck behind her can take pride in having scored on one of the best female goaltenders in the world. Not that many people score on Charline Labonté these days. The second-year Physical Education student, "Charlie" to her teammates, helped lead the Martlets to an 18-0 Quebec Students Sports Federation (QSSF) record this year. She picked up 11 shutouts along the way, and finished the regular season with a Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) low goals-against of average of 0.47. The 25-year-old sophomore allowed only eight goals in the 17 conference games she played in.
The list of Labonté's hockey achievements is a long one, and at the very top is the Olympic gold medal she won at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin almost exactly two years ago. Labonté won all three games she played in the games, including the final, a 4-1 win over Sweden.
"It was the best moment in my hockey life," Labonté said. "It's hard to explain — you really have to be there to know what it's like. Winning a gold medal with my best friends, with my family in the stands, was unbelievable."
Until she joined the women's national team program in 2001, Labonté mostly played on boys' teams, starting with her debut in Novice in her hometown of Boisbriand, Quebec. She is one of the few females to have played in the world famous Quebec Pee Wee tournament. In 1999, at the age of 17, she won the backup goalie job on the Acadie-Bathurst Titans of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, making her only the second woman ever (after Manon Rheaume) to play major junior hockey in Canada. She made the jump to women's hockey in 2003 and led the Montreal Axion to a National Women's Hockey League championship in 2006.
After being an alternate on the 2002 Olympic team and the 2003 and 2004 World Championship squads, Labonté made her national team breakthrough in 2005, earning the backup job to McGill alumnus Kim St. Pierre. Her two shutouts that year helped Canada to the silver medal.
Six months after winning Olympic gold, Labonté signed a letter of intent to play at McGill. Current Martlets head coach Peter Smith, (then an assistant with the women's national team), was instrumental in bringing her to the Martlets. The decision to apply to McGill wasn't a difficult one for Labonté.
"Because I played Junior, I wasn't eligible to play college hockey in the U.S, so I had to pick a school in Canada," Labonté said. "McGill was like a dream for me. I guess when you grow up in Montreal and you want to go to university… for me it was a dream place."
After an undefeated season and another number one ranking, Peter Smith and Labonté's teammates may feel like they're the ones who are dreaming. Her 17 wins this season tied a record she set last year, and her 11 shutouts tied the single-season mark established by Kim St. Pierre in 2002-03.
After her parents Pierre and Diane, who still attend almost every one of her games, Labonté singles out goaltending guru François Allaire, whose hockey school she attended for 10 years, as the person having helped her the most in her hockey career. Allaire, the current goaltending coach of the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, popularized the butterfly style of goaltending and helped launch the careers of numerous Quebec goalies including Patrick Roy and Jean-Sebastien Giguère.
With the QSSF playoffs now underway, Labonté has her sights set on the only jewel missing from her crown of hockey titles — a CIS Championship. Although she is cautious about looking past the Martlets' current opponents, Labonté can't help but think ahead to a possible rematch with the number two ranked University of Alberta Pandas, who defeated McGill 4-0 in the 2007 CIS Final.
"We thought that we had the team to win last year — and skills-wise I think we did," Labonté said. "But mentally we were not the best team on the ice that day. In a way Alberta outsmarted us. They were just more ready, and we were a very young team too. They had a lot of experienced players and that really showed."
"I think that was a good experience for us," Labonté said. "It was awful to lose — it was really hard on all of us for a couple of weeks after that. But looking back now, we learned something that day. And it really helped us for this year."
As for looking ahead, Labonté is waiting for the national women's team to announce its roster for the 2008 World Champions in Harbin, China. She is expected to make the team. Meanwhile, Labonté's ultimate goal is in the more distant future. She hopes to compete for a second Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in 2010.
The Martlets face Concordia in a best-of-three QSSF semi-final series. Game 2 takes place Friday, Feb. 21 at 7:00 p.m. at the Ed Meagher Arena. Game 3 (if necessary), is scheduled for McConnell Arena Sunday at 1:00 p.m.