Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Clarkson Cup is the fact that every year brings with it the possibility of a newly minted champion becoming part of the Triple Gold Club for Women. Initially conceived by Andrew Podnieks, the Club recognizes women that have achieved Winter Games gold, an IIHF World championship, along with the coveted Clarkson Cup.
Goaltender Charline Labonte can now lay claim to this exclusive club, becoming its 18th member. To look at the numbers in greater depth, Labonte becomes the eight player born in Quebec to gain Triple Gold Club status, joining Caroline Ouellette, Kim St. Pierre, Sarah Vaillancourt, Marie-Philip Poulin, Catherine Ward, Lauriane Rougeau and Genevieve Lacasse. In addition, she joins St. Pierre, Lacasse and CWHL co-founder Sami Jo Small as the only four goaltenders to reach this historic pinnacle.
Akin to Small, the road towards Triple Gold was one that was hard fought for Labonte. While Small gained her first IIHF championship in 1999 and her first Winter Games gold in 2002, she would have to wait until 2014 to finally win her first Clarkson Cup. Labonte had an IIHF title and Winter Games gold wrapped up by 2006, but her road to the coveted Clarkson was one that was interrupted by three heartbreaking appearances in the Finals.
Making her Finals debut in 2013, her road to the finals resulted in the posting of three playoff shutouts, a league record. Labonte would also make history as the 2013 edition of the Finals marked the first time that two first-year CWHL goaltenders contested each other for the Cup as Genevieve Lacasse stood between the pipes for the Boston Blades. The heroics of Kelley Steadman allowed the Blades to become the second American team to capture the Cup.
A rematch against Boston in 2015 saw Labonte provide another valiant performance, leading Les Canadiennes into overtime. While Labonte was part of history in the 2015 Finals, it was not a highly desired history. Boston’s Janine Weber would score in overtime, becoming the first European to score the Cup-clinching goal.
Last year, Labonte and Les Canadiennes finished with the CWHL’s best regular season record, entering the 2016 Clarkson Cup as favorites. With the event hosted at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, it was also the first Finals contested on NHL ice. Labonte would suffer the worst playoff performance of her career, as the Inferno burned Les Canadiennes in an overwhelming 8-3 final.
Heading into the 2017 Finals, Labonte’s opposition was the Inferno once again, signifying the first time in league history that the same teams faced each other in consecutive finals. As the event was also hosted at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, it saw Labonte in a position of underdog as the Inferno looked to spark the beginnings of a dynasty.
Such status proved to be of motivation for Labonte, looking for a reversal of fortune. Undoubtedly, she possessed an element of confidence as Clarkson Cup weekend began with a historic win. Of note, Labonte became the first goaltender in CWHL history to win the Goaltender of the Year Awards three consecutive times.
With such an historic honor, Labonte wanted to ensure that three would not become the theme of this weekend, as she did want to become the first goaltender to lose three straight Clarkson Cup finals.
After an amazing regular season that saw her post an 11-4-0 mark, complemented by a sparkling 1.53 goals against average, she remained her strong performance in the first round of the playoffs, allowing only two goals in a sweep of the promising Brampton Thunder.
As Montreal outshot Calgary by a 12-5 mark in the first period of the Finals, it was evident that Labonte’s confidence increased. Nullifying a pair of Inferno power play opportunities, her efforts were definitely setting the tone. Compared to the debacles in 2013 and 2016, Montreal remained competitive, gaining a 1-0 lead after Katia Clement-Heydra scored on the power play.
Despite Calgary outshooting Montreal by a 10-7 mark in the second stanza, the third playoff goal of Marie-Philip Poulin made the Clarkson dream more realistic. The third period saw Labonte remained poised between the pipes, even as Jillian Saulnier snapped her bid for the first shutout in Clarkson Cup history. An empty net goal by Poulin put the game out of reach with less than two minutes remaining.
While Poulin’s efforts were essential in bringing Montreal its first Clarkson Cup since 2012, it was only fitting that Labonte was recognized as the First Star of the Game and the MVP of the Playoffs. Second Star honors went to Poulin while Saulnier was recognized as Third Star. As a side note, Labonte’s colleagues from culinary school (her post hockey career ambitions involve plans to become a chef) threw a chef’s hat on the ice following the win, as a gesture of support.
In a career defined by remarkable performances at both the IIHF Worlds and the Winter Games, the 2017 Clarkson Cup finals may have been the greatest game in Charline Labonte’s career. Similar to Poulin, the back-to-back winner of the league MVP and the Jayna Hefford Trophy, both had something to prove, as their All-World status truly reached iconic status, while defining their CWHL careers by the glory that a championship brings.
Images obtained from Facebook
To view a full list of Triple Gold Club winners, please visit: https://theihlc.com/history/triple-gold-club/