Stephanie Labbe had just been introduced as the Vancouver Whitecaps general manager of women’s soccer when the former goaltender for Canada’s Olympic champion team addressed the issue of abuse in sport.
Labbe pointed to a recent report detailing abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States.
“That doesn’t just happen south of the border,” said Labbe, a former player with the NWSL Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage. “It happens in Canada, not just in soccer, in all of sports.
“I’m going to be a voice to continue to advocate for athletes to have safe spaces to speak about these issues.”
An emotional Labbe paused to fight back tears when she talked about “a culture of silence” that “wrapped around us a lot.”
“Abuse has no place in our sport, in any sport in Canada,” she said. “Having this job in this platform, I want to tell any victim, anybody who has ever faced abuse or been in a challenging situation, I am here for you.
“I’m going to stand up for you, to continue to fight for you.”
Axel Schuster, the Whitecaps chief executive officer and sporting director, said Labbe’s job will be to oversee and transform the Major League Soccer team’s women’s program.
“We want to send out a signal we give the responsibility and leadership of our girls and women side to somebody we know will do a great job and she will also question a lot of things and she will not be shy of bringing up things she doesn’t like,” said Schuster.
“I want to have young, dynamic leaders but I also want to have leaders that have an opinion and that challenge the organization and challenge me.”
Labbe said one of her goals is to help create a women’s professional soccer league in Canada.
“I believe truly that is the best step forward for this country,” said the Edmonton native who turns 36 on Monday. “Canadian women are some of the best players in the world.
“To create a domestic league and provide opportunities for them to have the choice to stay home will not only give them that opportunity, it will give opportunities for all the youth growing up to aspire to a dream to play in that league. We have the opportunity to create a world class league.”
Schuster said it’s frustrating that the women advancing through the Whitecaps system don’t have a domestic league as a goal.
Labbe played her college soccer at the University of Connecticut and made her first appearance with Canada’s senior national team in 2008.
A rib injury to Erin McLeod resulted in Labbe taking over the starting goalkeeping duties for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics where the team won a bronze medal. At the Tokyo Games, Labbe missed a group match due to an injury then recorded cleans sheets against Brazil in the quarterfinal and the U.S. in the semifinal.
She was in goal when Canada defeated Sweden in a shootout to win the gold medal.
Labbe retired from the national team in April.
She believes her experience as a goalkeeper playing in two Olympics, three Word Cups and with club teams in four countries, will help in her new role.
“Being a goalkeeper, you have to have a level of competence to direct people in front of you,” she said. “I understand the power of my voice and how I can affect change, how I can affect others around me.
“I also have the humility to know I don’t know everything, to ask questions, to be open to new ideas and opportunities and to really be able to collaborate with people around me to create the best possible outcomes in different situations.”
Labbe was asked if she had any hesitation joining the Whitecaps following former women’s coach Bob Birarda pleading guilty to four counts of sexual assault and sexual interference involving young female players he once coached.
“I’m excited to be an advocate and a voice for change,” she said. “I will speak up when I see things that should be changed.”
“I know the club has taken some big steps in hiring some new positions to continue with pushing this club forward and be a safe sport place in this country.”
Labbe said she will continue living in Calgary but will travel to Vancouver “as often I need to be.”
—Jim Morris, The Canadian Press