MONTREAL — The best thing about rookie right wing Pierre-Cedric Labrie, his Lightning teammates say, is he can laugh at himself.
Take his shock of thick, curly red hair he sometimes tames with an elastic band.
"If I don't take care of my head, it will just be a big Afro and everybody is laughing at me," Labrie said, "so, I just have to laugh, too."
"We always say he's got dual character," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's got character, and he is a character. Those are fun guys to be around."
Labrie, though, is dead serious about his career. That's what happens when at age 17 you are cut by a junior team and take a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store.
He is even more serious about playing in Montreal, where he played his first NHL game last season and where Tampa Bay tonight takes on the Canadiens.
"It's like my ground. It's my province," said Labrie, 26, whose hometown of Baie-Comeau in Quebec is about 360 miles northeast. "It's like being back home. It's a good feeling. The game is going to be on TV everywhere in my hometown, so that's really special because I know everybody is looking."
Assuming Labrie plays — the 6-foot-3, 234-pound freight train has missed eight of the previous 11 games with an upper-body injury — what a dozen family and friends will see is a player growing into his game.
Labrie scored his second career goal in Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Jets, and it should be noted both came from the front of the net on scrambling, physical plays.
And though he is averaging 7:40 of ice time as a fourth-line player, Labrie played a career-best 10:49 and was plus-1 against Winnipeg. His line, which included B.J. Crombeen and Dana Tyrell, was Tampa Bay's best for much of the game.
He also has an assist and is plus-1 in 14 games. His 28 penalty minutes include four fights, and he has 32 hits.
"He does that job in hockey that's tough to do," said Cooper, who also coached Labrie in the AHL at Syracuse and Norfolk. "He's got to grind guys out sometimes. He has to fight when called upon."
"He's hard to play against, a great skater, physical," Crombeen said. "He creates a lot in there."
Perhaps most of all, though, Labrie is a terrific teammate.
Part of it is his willingness to fight to defend teammates. But there also is a playfulness to Labrie, who always seems to be smiling and, as Crombeen said, "doesn't have too many bad days."
"He takes things very lightly," said teammate Alex Killorn, who also played with Labrie in the AHL. "You can make fun of him, and he'll make fun of you. There's nothing personal about it."
"I bring the positivity," Labrie said. "I try to bring some jokes and make guys laugh."
And that brings us back to Labrie's hair.
"When he puts shampoo in there, it just blows up like a poodle," Killorn said.
Asked if he ever made fun of Labrie's hair, Cooper laughed,
"I've had him for three years," he said. "You could probably answer that yourself."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]