Labonte brings a passion to the sport

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:27 AM ET

Doris Labonte, whose name derives from an actor not named Doris Day, could do a pretty good onstage turn himself.

The Rimouski Oceanic head coach is a natural. Turn on a camera or pull out a notepad and away he goes.

Perhaps you've seen Labonte during this Memorial Cup. He's the mercurial guy of a million emotions and as many gestures whose pleading, exhorting and berating run through emotions from exquisite ecstasy to utter desolation.

Beneath all the passion beats the heart of a guy who outwardly is the polar opposite of tonight's Memorial Cup semifinal opponent, the staid Brian Kilrea on the Ottawa 67's bench, but inwardly, a man who paid his dues without asking for change.

There's the glass eye as a result of a hockey injury. There's the passion. There's the name. What about that name?

"My mother," he said. "She didn't know. She liked the name and didn't know it was a girl's name to anglophones. In Quebec, there was an actor, a great actor, Doris Lussier, and it wasn't a problem to be named Doris."

Off on a riff, hockey's Doris spoke about things such as registering at a hotel.

"I say Daris, D-A-R-I-S, but always have my i.d. ready. If people make fun of (the name) it's OK. If they're laughing at me, no, I'm ready to fight," he added with a chuckle.

Labonte says it cost him money to be a coach, considering he was getting about $5,000 a posting as assistant coach in Shawinigan, Chicoutimi, Sherbrooke and Trois Rivieres, along with other roles.

"I had to to a lot of jobs to eat every day," pointed out the former high school teacher, a graduate of University of Montreal and University of Quebec Trois Rivieres.

He got his first head coaching appointment with Shawinigan in 1992, was fired two years later and hired when the Rimouski franchise was founded in 1995. He has attained legendary status.

"In Rimouski, he is God," said Marc Lachappelle of Journal de Montreal. "One day, they will name the arena after him."

Most importantly, Sidney Crosby loves him. And the coach clearly loves the player against whom far too many liberties have been taken during this tournament.

"It's not just the coverage, it's the illegal toughness," Labonte said. "It happened during the season, too. People were saying Crosby has special status and the referees protect him. The refs don't want to hear that, so it has played against him. Great hockey players should get the same protections as everyone else.

During the season, we can put a bodyguard with him, but now 60 minutes is not time to try to prove something."

Labonte feels tonight's semi-final will be wide open and the goaltenders will decide it. Mind you, he added, that's generally what happens in playoff hockey.

"Somebody said if it wasn't for your goalie (Cedrick Desjardins) you wouldn't be here. Montreal won two Stanley Cups with Patrick Roy and he was MVP. Billy Smith was MVP of the (New York) Islanders. Martin Brodeur won the Connie Smythe, too. Most of the time the goalies are the key players."

Labonte could go on for a few hours about Slick Sidney and one wonders whether coaching him has been all that good for the coach's well-being. He can go ballistic over anything he sees as an uncalled foul on any player but a slash on the much-ballyhooed 17-year-old sensation can rocket the coach to outer space somewhere.

He agrees his bench histrionics tend to leave him tired after a game.

"Yeah, because of my style. I get two or three years older for every year I coach. It keeps me alive. Working with those kids is important, much better than sitting waiting to retire and going to get the groceries every Thursday."

Not that it would be tough. Around Rimouski, the guy who helped deliver the 2000 Memorial Cup might never have to pay again.


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