TAMPA — The thought of Pierre-Cedric Labrie sniffing the NHL seemed like a pipe dream eight years ago.
Labrie was a 17-year-old undrafted wing cut by the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He toiled on the midnight shift at a convenience store five nights a week while trying to catch on with another junior team. Sometimes he'd nod off on boxes in the back trying to catch up on sleep between his games at night and morning practices.
After a couple of months, Labrie returned home to Baie-Comeau, Quebec, eight hours from Montreal and light-years from the NHL. He planned on being a fireman. His hockey career?
"Was going nowhere," he said.
That's what has made these past three weeks with the Lightning so special for Labrie, 25, a bruising forward who isn't afraid to drop his gloves — and opponents. But it was Labrie's fight to revive a career he thought was going nowhere that made him the most jovial player, and inspirational story, in the Tampa Bay locker room the past seven games, with teammates affectionately calling the long-haired long shot "Nacho Libre."
Whether Labrie, one of four Lightning players reassigned to AHL Norfolk on Wednesday for the All-Star break, returns for Tuesday's game against the Capitals depends on the health of some regulars. But his dream has already become reality.
"He is Rudy," Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said, referencing the movie about a Notre Dame football long shot. "It's the story that doesn't happen very often. And that's why they make movies about stories like that. But with him, it's coming true."
Labrie said it took a bit of luck for him to get to the NHL, and he will be forever grateful for the help he got.
The only son of an airplane engineer and a hairdresser, Labrie, without a hockey job in 2005, thought his career was over. But for fun he tried out for a senior league team that played only on weekends. Through that team, Labrie said, he got hooked up with the owner of the junior A league Restigouche (now Campbellton) Tigers, whom he joined that year. He scored 43 goals in 54 games.
The next season, 2006, he racked up 35 goals for his hometown Quebec league major junior team, rediscovering his passion for the game.
"I was playing way better when I was having fun than when I was putting pressure on myself," Labrie said. "I said, 'This is my sport. I want to do this for the rest of my life.' "
Labrie got signed by the Canucks and played three seasons for AHL Manitoba, but he found himself without a job in 2010. Agent Paul Corbeil called Norfolk, which was looking for muscle after losing enforcer Mitch Fritz to injury, selling the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Labrie as a tough player with great hockey sense.
"When I first met him, I said a couple things — 'I need, A, a barber; B, an interpreter; and C, a bodyguard in case he gets (mad) at me," Cooper said, joking.
Labrie got in seven fights in his first 13 games but showed all-around skill in working his way from the fourth line to the first.
In late December, the Lightning signed Labrie to a two-year deal. Just over a week later, he got his first NHL callup, to play against the Canadiens in Montreal. So nervous and excited, Labrie said his body shook for five to 10 minutes after hearing the news.
After finally getting his shot, Labrie — who has one assist and two fights in seven games — has proven he belongs.
"What sets him apart from some of the other big, physical guys that you might think are fighters is he plays very smart — very, very smart," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "He's never caught out of position. He's very safe, very reliable. He's just not a guy you have at the end of the bench that you put him out there when you need a hit or a fight or whatever. He can play the game."
Labrie has not played a ton — 5:01 Tuesday against the Blue Jackets — but he has savored every second.
"The guys are like, 'You have a permanent smile on your face,' " Labrie said. "I'm like, 'Why would I not smile right now? I still can't believe it.' "
MINOR MATTERS: The Lightning also reassigned defenseman Evan Oberg and forwards Mike Angelidis and Trevor Smith to Norfolk.