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Celebration tour a sendoff for veteran Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe


VANCOUVER – While there’ll be a lot of excitement and joy on the field when Canada’s women’s soccer team takes on Nigeria in a pair of upcoming friendlies, goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan knows there’ll be a tinge of sadness, too.

The matchups in Vancouver on Friday and Langford, B.C., on Monday are not just a chance for the squad to celebrate its gold medal with Canadian fans — they’re also a chance for the team to say goodbye to Sheridan’s fellow ‘keeper, Stephanie Labbe.

After backstopping the Canadians to an Olympic championship in Tokyo last summer, the 35-year-old Labbe announced her retirement in January and closed out her professional career with Paris-Saint Germain. The B.C. leg of the celebration tour will mark her final games.

“It’s bittersweet. Obviously we want to keep our best players here as long as possible and she’s just been such a mentor to me and a lot of the other goalkeepers here. And we’re so excited to celebrate her this weekend,“ Sheridan said.

“It’s going to be hard to have her leaving us officially but we want her to go out on the highest of highs that she possibly can. And we want (Vancouver’s) B.C. Place to be screaming her name for 90 minutes straight.”

Labbe has been a stalwart presence in Canada’s goal for many years.

Hailing from Stony Plain, Alta., she has made 85 appearances for the national squad, including 80 starts, and earned 43 clean sheets.

Labbe was a force in net during the gold medal win in Tokyo, persevering to help her country clinch the win over Sweden on penalties. The performance led some to dub her “Canada’s national minister of defence” and she was named runner-up for last year’s Best FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper honour.

“One of my favourite teammates, one of the best goalkeepers that we’ve had for Canada,“ said midfielder Desiree Scott, 34, who’s long worn the Maple Leaf alongside the netminder.

Over the past few years, Labbe has come into her own, Scott added.

Canada's goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe reacts in a penalty shootout during the women's final soccer match against Sweden at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Yokohama, Japan. After backstopping the Canadians to an Olympic championship in Tokyo last summer, the 35-year-old Labbe announced her retirement in January and closed out her professional career with Paris-Saint Germain.

“I think her leadership skills show through her voice, through her impact, her leadership between those posts. You can always hear her within the match, she’s always helping off field,” she said. “I think she’s really just become who she needs to be within those goals but also for the team as well.”

The veteran presence between the posts has been something Canada relies on, said forward Nichelle Prince.

“She’s played such a huge role for this team and kept us in so many games and helped us win so many games,” she said. “It’s not just her performance on the field but her leadership off the field is something that has got us to the top.”

Returning to home soil to face Nigeria will allow the Canadians to give Labbe the praise and celebration she deserves while the team continues to celebrate its gold-medal win, Prince said.

All 22 players from the Olympic championship squad are on the roster for the friendlies, plus seven new additions looking to cement their status for future international contests.

Canada, ranked sixth in the world, may need the youthful energy as it takes on No. 39 Nigeria.

The two sides haven’t faced one another since a friendly in Spain in 2019, but the Canadians know they’re in for a tough test, said Prince.

“Nigeria’s going to be a very athletic team. They’re going to come out and be very physical on us and try to take advantage of our counter attack,” she said. “So I just think we have to be careful with the ball and punish them when they get numbers forward. But I think it’s going to be good prep for us for this summer.”

This summer will see Canada compete in the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico, a tournament that will act as a qualifier for both the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

While the group is eager to build toward the crucial tournament, it feels odd at times to be celebrating the past while preparing for the future, said centreback Vanessa Gilles.

“It’s a little peculiar because obviously we want to celebrate the amazing things that we’ve done … but also focus ahead and focus on getting the group together and ready for the CONCACAF qualifiers that are coming up in two months,“ she said. ”So just the balance of those two are a little peculiar.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.

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