By Chris Kuc
CHICAGO – Erik Gustafsson smiled when asked his recollection of Pierre-Cedric Labrie, a former teammate on the Rockford IceHogs.
“Big monster,” Gustafsson said.
To clarify, the Blackhawks defenseman meant that in an endearing way.
“He’s a great guy, a great leader on and off the ice,” Gustafsson said of Labrie. “He’s not the most skilled guy out there but he works hard. You know exactly what he’s going to do and when I play against him I have to keep my head up. It’s going to be fun to play against him.”
That fun should occur Sunday when the Blackhawks face Eisbären Berlin of the Deutsche Eishockey League on their first stop of a trip to Berlin and Prague as part of the NHL’s Global Series that will include the season-opener against the Flyers.
You never know who you will end up running into when you schedule an exhibition game against a team in Berlin and in this case it is Labrie, who was a member of the Blackhawks organization from 2014-17 before eventually ending up with the Berlin thanks to a successful training camp tryout.
Playing in Berlin is a new chapter in the hockey life of Labrie, who has suited up for 16 teams during his career, including 46 in the NHL with the Lightning from 2011-14.
If you think Labrie is unhappy that he had to take his talents to Europe to continue playing the game, think again.
“After the first two weeks here I started asking myself why I didn’t come here a few years before,” Labrie, 33, said. “I love the style of play, it’s two games a week and you always come back home. The trips are as not as bad as the American League so it doesn’t take as big a toll on your body. It’s been a really fun experience so far and we have a really good group so I can’t ask for any better.”
It got better for Labrie when he checked the Eisbären schedule just prior to his tryout and saw the game against the Blackhawks looming large.
“That was another good reason to perform and get a contract,” Labrie said. “It’s something really exciting to all of us. Playing the Chicago Blackhawks will be a challenge, especially since it’s my old organization. There are still a few guys that I know on that team like Gustafsson. It will be really fun to have a chance to play them.”
Labrie, a 6-foot-3-inch, 234-pound winger from Baie-Comeua, Quebec, wasn’t able to crack the Blackhawks lineup during his time in the organization but did appear in 178 games with the IceHogs and had a combined 30 goals, 28 assists and 311 penalty minutes.
A couple of stops later, Labrie’s career will come full circle when he gets the opportunity to skate against his former organization.
“I think it’s going to be almost like one more chance to try to … not to prove myself … but almost make justice for myself and show that I’m still capable of playing at 33,” Labrie said. “For me, it’s more like pride and also it’s the type of game where you want to play well just to show them that (the Blackhawks) did the right thing to sign me.”
To this day, Labrie is well-regarded within the Blackhawks organization and he had nothing but positive things to say about his experience with the team, including former teammates and current Vice President of Hockey Operations/Team Affiliates Mark Bernard.
“They are good memories, for sure, of the guys that I met in the locker room and guys like Mark Bernard,” Labrie said. “They always treat you the best that you can be treated. You walk into the rink and there is a cook making breakfast, just little details like that. Then when you move on in your career it’s like, ‘Holy (cow), where is the cook?’ You don’t have that everywhere.”
What Labrie does have is a team that plays in a town full of rabid hockey fans. The winger said that he frequently spots people wearing Blackhawks gear on the streets of Berlin and games at Mercedes Benz Arena are an experience.
“You see players talk about their fans being the best but honestly, I think they’re the loudest,” Labrie said. “In general in Germany, the hockey fans are really hooked on the sport and just in love with it. They sing songs, they wait for you after the game and we go back on the ice and they keep singing. It’s electric.”
As far as the play on the ice, Labrie said, “with the quality of hockey, I never expected it. I didn’t think it was going to be that high and it’s an adjustment a little bit with the referees but I would say it’s basically something you can compare to the AHL.”
Labrie is also fond of the city, which he has been enjoying more of since his wife, Jana, and 1-year-old son, Lionel, joined him in Berlin. They recently went on an excursion to the Berlin Zoo and Labrie has been exploring the culinary options the city has to offer.
“The food is unbelievable in Berlin,” Labrie said. “Every time you go out you try a different culture of food and you can try a different restaurant every day and never get sick of it. It’s a really cool atmosphere in Berlin.”
It is an atmosphere that Labrie hopes to experience for years to come.
“I signed for the season and hopefully I perform enough to try to extend it next season,” he said. “They treat you like you’re in the NHL and you’re in a big city. You can’t really ask for any better for a transition from America to Europe.”