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Retired Olympic champion Labbé helping shape next generation of Canadian soccer stars

Rather than taking it easy in retirement, Stephanie Labbé decided to hit the road.

After playing in her last game as a professional in April, the former Canadian women’s team goalkeeper embarked on a cross-country tour over the last two months in which she held youth player clinics in more than 30 communities for boys and girls ages nine to 13.

Labbé, a 35-year-old from Edmonton, hoped that the clinics inspired the next generation of young girls who’ll one day play for Canada. Just as important, the tour permitted her to connect with Canadian fans on a more intimate level and celebrate the women’s team’s gold-medal achievement at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

“We won gold in empty stadiums [because of COVID], and we really didn’t have that chance to come back and celebrate with Canadians. We had a few celebration games, but it was the tail end of the pandemic and we weren’t really able to go into the community and share it with people outside of those games,” Labbé stated.

“That was something that pushed me to do this — to travel across the country, to get into communities and give these kids an opportunity to share in the excitement and joy of this medal. I’ll never be able to put into words what it’s like when I see the smiles on the kids’ faces, it makes it all worth it.”

A vocal advocate for the advancement of women’s soccer, Labbé isn’t content to simply rest on her laurels now that her playing career is over. Instead, she plans to pay things forward and use her public status to push for the launch of a Canadian professional women’s league.

Canada is one of a very few top-ranked countries in the world that doesn’t have a top-level domestic division.

Labbé argues that Canada loses so many players in the 18-to-22 age range who haven’t caught on with the national team because of the lack of professional opportunities at home.

“We need to keep growing the women’s game in Canada. It’s not enough to just watch us play every four years [at the Olympics or World Cup]. We need to give players the opportunity to be seen week in and week out,” Labbé said.

“With the domestic league, there’s been a lot of talk about Canada Soccer supporting the idea, but it’s been talked about for years. It’s time for action and time for it to happen. The investment in this has to happen now and it can’t be delayed anymore. We need to continue to push for it to get this done sooner rather than later.”

In between tour stops, Labbé reconnected with her former teammates in June when Canada played South Korea in an international friendly in Toronto.

The former shot stopper hasn’t been in the public eye as much since she earned her 86th and final cap in 2-0 voctory over Nigeria in Vancouver on April 8. But it was clear by the reaction she received in Toronto that Canadian fans haven’t forgotten about her.

“To be in the stands and to see how much I was recognized, that really continues to remind me how much of an impact this team made last summer. I was never a recognizable face on the team, so to experience that first-hand was quite interesting. It’s exciting because I get to watch the team with pure enjoyment and to really be a fan and not have any regrets or negative feelings about retiring. I’m really grateful for that,” Labbé offered.

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