Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé taking legal action against Premier Development League
Canadian Olympian says gender-based soccer league should be open to change
Stephanie Labbé continues to grow and develop her game, training daily with the Calgary Foothills FC men's under-23 soccer team, while challenging a recent ruling away from the pitch.
The 2016 Canadian Olympic goalkeeper is taking legal action against the Premier Development League, which refused to let her play for the semi-pro squad earlier this month because it is a gender-based league.
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"It's a tough pill to swallow being denied something because of my gender. That's not something I can go home and work on and fix," Labbé, 31, told CBC Sports on the weekend. "I'm extremely thankful for the Calgary Foothills but I'm not happy with [the decision].
"I'm doing everything I can to get that rule changed, whether it's for my benefit or someone else's. I'm clearly, in this environment, at a physical [and] biological disadvantage [but] if I'm able to overcome that and prove that my abilities are good enough, then that's what should matter."
Hey <a href="https://twitter.com/USLPDL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@USLPDL</a>! More than 7000 lovely people have signed the petition demanding that you revoke the decision to bar <a href="https://twitter.com/stephlabbe1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@stephlabbe1</a>! Are you just gonna sit there and do nothing?! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetLabb%C3%A9Play?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LetLabbéPlay</a> <a href="https://t.co/5jKsIRMnlk">pic.twitter.com/5jKsIRMnlk</a>—@l_hommedemars
Considered the No. 1 women's player in Canada, Labbé has earned 50 caps, awarded for each international game appearance. The native of Stony Plain, Alta., also helped the women's national team to a bronze medal at the Summer Games in Rio on Aug. 19, 2016.
Labbé views the PDL's decision as an opportunity to break down barriers and for the league to be open to change.
She has received support from other athletes, including Hayley Wickenheiser, who retired from hockey in January 2017 as Canada's all-time leading scorer after winning nearly 12 Olympic and world championship medals.
Wickenheiser's forays into men's professional hockey in Finland and Sweden set new standards on how much a woman can be pushed physically as the Shaunavon, Sask., native played a combined 65 men's pro games in Europe.
"Hayley and I have been in contact since I first made the decision [last fall] to try out for the [Foothills]. She's been a mentor for me," added Labbé. "She's someone who understands the different obstacles and prepped me for the worst-case scenario. Knowing she fought and had a positive outcome gives me hope that there's hope for me."
I am still a bit stunned that soccer is behind these other high-profile sports in that they're not able to see the positives that can come out of this.— Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé on gender equality
Fellow Canadian Shannon Szabados has also played minor pro hockey with men in recent years. The Edmonton goalie became the first female to appear in the Southern Professional Hockey League when she debuted with Columbus in the spring of 2014, and currently plays for the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs senior men's triple-A team.
Mixed-gender events also appear to be the wave of the future at the Olympics, with athletics, swimming, table tennis and triathlon approved for Tokyo in 2020.
"I am still a bit stunned that soccer is behind these other high-profile sports in that they're not able to see the positives that can come out of this," said Labbé. "All we're doing is giving somebody an opportunity to grow and develop."
The five-foot-eight keeper, who has noticed an improvement in her strength and power from training with Calgary's men's squad, is currently in contract talks with a pair of clubs from two of the top women's professional leagues in Europe. Labbé is hopeful of signing a deal, ranging from six months to two years, by the end of June.
'The experience I have is invaluable'
She has been looking for a team since parting ways with the Washington Spirit of the National Women's Soccer League in February. No other NWSL club picked her up and Labbé elected not to go overseas, having already played six seasons there.
"The women's leagues in Europe are extremely competitive. I've played in many different environments and at the highest level at an Olympic Games," she said. "The experience I have is invaluable and being able to share my confidence and knowledge of the game is one of my biggest strengths."
This week, Labbé is travelling with her partner, Canadian track cyclist and former national team skier Georgia Simmerling, to watch Champions League soccer in Kyiv, Ukraine. The free "once-in-a-lifetime" trip is courtesy of sports streaming service DAZN in support of Labbé's pursuit for gender equality in sport.
The women's final between Wolfsburg and Lyon is Thursday while Real Madrid and Liverpool tangle in Saturday's men's championship.
I’m SO EXCITED that I don’t have to keep this a secret anymore.. <a href="https://twitter.com/gsimmerling?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@gsimmerling</a> and I are GOING TO THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINALS courtesy of <a href="https://twitter.com/DAZN_CA?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DAZN_CA</a> 🙌🏼✈️⚽️🏆 <br><br>An amazing company who wanted to give us an incredible sporting experience... WHAT A DREAM! 😁 <a href="https://t.co/WJvMbFB4sq">pic.twitter.com/WJvMbFB4sq</a>—@stephlabbe1
"It'll be about enjoying the experience and being surrounded by greatness," Labbé said. "To see the world's best players and support one of my Canadian teammates, [centre back] Kadeisha Buchanan [of Brampton, Ont.], will be incredible."
Offering the trip to Labbé "was the right thing to do," said Paulo Senra, head of public relations at DAZN Canada.
"We hope that being in the presence of some of the best women's and men's soccer action globally, Stephanie continues to be inspired," he added.