Men's soccer league refuses top Canadian goaltender because she's a woman

Stephanie Labbé is considered the No. 1 player in the country. To challenge herself, she won a place on the Calgary Foothills FC men's soccer team this spring.

Stephanie Labbé, country's No. 1 female footballer, qualified for Calgary Foothills FC

Stephanie Labbe wants to play men's professional soccer for the challenge. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press via Associated Press)

An international men's soccer league has no room for Canada's top female player.

Stephanie Labbé is considered the No. 1 player in the country. She earned 49 caps, awarded for each international game appearance, and helped the Canadian women's team win Olympic bronze at the 2016 Rio games.

To challenge herself, she also tried to win a place on the Calgary Foothills FC men's soccer team this spring.

She earned that spot — but the league refused to let her play due to her gender.

"What year is it and why are we still talking about these issues?" Labbé said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. "That's the most frustrating thing for me, is just the lack of openmindedness."

'Gender-based eligibility'

This week, the 31-year-old from Edmonton wrote a blog post slamming Premier Development League (PDL) for its decision to bar her, despite the team asking to have her play.

The pre-professional league runs teams across North America, but in a statement to CBC News, said it follows "gender-based eligibility requirements."

Stephanie Labbe is considered the top female soccer player in the country. (Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

The league has told Labbé she cannot appeal its decision because she could just go play in a women's league.

"Although our specific mission relates to the men's game, we applaud all that female players have done to move the sport of soccer forward in North America," the league said in the statement, declining an interview. 

"Stephanie Labbé, in particular, has had tremendous success, and we wish her the best as she continues to pursue her career goals."

Labbé, however, faces being benched all season. Because she and the team were so hopeful to have her play, she missed the deadline to join women's teams.

Stephanie Labbe kicks the ball during a semi-final match in the women's Olympic football tournament in 2016. (Eugenio Savio/Associated Press)

She's hoping instead to get a spot on a European team in July, when teams start accepting mid-season transfer players.

Labbé is not giving up but wants the Foothills team to concentrate on its short and intense season. The team won't appeal the decision, head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said in a statement, as the process would "eat into valuable playing time."

Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, left, shone for Canada in the Rio Olympic soccer tournament. She was named Canada's starter after veteran Erin McLeod, right, sustained a knee injury. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images/File)

He said they still consider her to be part of the team and hope to find other ways to get her playing this season.

"That's what I can control at the moment," she said, "what I do on the field, and everything else is kind of a bonus."

'Passionate about equal rights'

Labbé said she'll fight the decision in the off-season — for other women who may want such an opportunity in the future.

"It shouldn't matter what gender you are but that's where we are right now and it's a battle," Labbé said. "I'm very passionate about equal rights."

Other top Canadian women athletes, including two Albertans, have sought to play in men's leagues for a chance to challenge themselves.

Shannon Szabados, who won Olympic hockey gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014, plays men's hockey. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/File)

Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser played in Europe's professional men's hockey league, and Olympian Shannon Szabados played professional men's hockey in the United States and currently goaltends for the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs.

"She has a women's professional league that she could be playing in, but she's choosing to play in a men's league," Labbé said. "It's all about putting yourself in an environment that's going to challenge you and make you better.

"If you're good enough to play in that environment, then it shouldn't matter what gender you are."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.