Erik Labrosse enjoyed a very special run, the Laurentian Voyageurs’ nordic ski team capturing an OUA Championship in each of his four years of competition while attending school in Sudbury in the late eighties and early nineties.
Even more special, however, is the joy that he derives when he is not the man on the trails, but rather one who is largely responsible for the support and guidance of those varsity athletes who represent L.U. with such pride.
“I think I attach more emotion and more intensity to the successes I’ve had as a coach rather than as an athlete,” said Labrosse, now in his fourth year at the helm of the team with which he enjoyed such a memorable run, roughly one generation of student-athletes ago. “I’ve been to two OUA Championships with this team and those are two of my proudest moments.”
In fact, the 52 year-old native of Hearst does not find these feelings confined to just nordic ski, having also coached his son’s (Patrick) curling team (Team Branconnier), as well as helping both of his children along with their fellow air cadets to an introduction to biathlon, a few years ago.
“Some of my fondest memories are of that up and down season (with Team Branconnier), finishing with what was a pretty successful outcome for us at provincials,” suggested Labrosse. That kind of athletic diversity is not restricted to his role as a coach, however, having followed the typical pathway in hockey until he reached high-school age.
“I can’t tell you what triggered the change,” he said with a laugh, reminiscing on that fateful day that he would make the drive to Kapuskasing, and with but $60 in hand, commit to the purchase of skis, bindings, boots and poles. There were no illusions of grandeur as he took to the trails.
“I wasn’t very good,” Labrosse recalled with a laugh. “I came in last in my first IAGB (Interscholastic Association of the Gold Belt - now the North Eastern Ontario Athletic Association) event - but I did improve after that.”
Yep - that’s a bit of an understatement.
By the time that he competed neck and neck with a Laurentian contingent who made their way to Hearst for a very early season race in his final year of secondary schooling, taking advantage of that connection to chat with then L.U. head nordic coach, Ken Sidney, Labrosse had risen to the stature of finding himself more than competitive with the upper tier of provincial skiers, making his way to Junior Nationals and such.
Though there was not an established club in Hearst at the time, Labrosse and a handful of others latched on to the efforts of high-school teacher Don Wilson. “He spent an enormous amount of time helping us connect with the sport, but also driving us to practices, driving us to the races, driving us to training camps,” said Labrosse.
Racing independently with the skiers at Stokely Creek Lodge, just north of Sault Ste Marie and many, many hours from Hearst, the Health and Physical Education student at L.U. would take the next step in his development, the peak of his competitive outlet in cross-country circuits.
“Most of what I learned about skiing, technique, training, nutrition - that all happened while I was at university,” stated Labrosse. “It really changed how I understood the sport.”
That kind of knowledge does not easily dissipate. So while the then recent post-secondary graduate spent a few years focusing on career and family and the like, a return to the nordic scene was not the least bit inconceivable. In the case of Labrosse, it started with his foray into biathlon, learning many facets of this fascinating marriage of physical activities at roughly the same time as the teens under his watch.
“It’s a super interesting part of the sport, combining two very different sports,” said Labrosse of the nordic ski - air rifle tandem that owes its roots to military history. “The skiing part, I was super comfortable with, but the training around the range, the safety aspects and all that are things that I taught myself.”
His efforts in curling only expanded his coaching base, creating just the right environment to move beyond an initial offer of a helping hand with the Voyageurs’ nordic ski family, circa 2018 or so, following eventually in the footsteps of Alison Godwin as head coach of the team.
“There was probably a part of me that was just waiting for that opportunity to get more involved,” said Labrosse with a smile. Two short years later, he and his athletes were thrust into the midst of unprecedented times, coming to grips with all that is involved, attempting to persevere through Covid-19.
“You think about what it has meant for coaches and athletes to go through almost two seasons without any competitions, a way to measure yourself, to test yourself,” he added. “Our focus, both last season and this season, was really on keeping everyone connected.”
“It’s not that we de-emphasized the competitive aspect of it, but we all agreed, as a team, that the training, the Zoom conversations, the conversations between athletes and coaches were all things that were positive aspects of the university experience during a very difficult time.”
“It was important to understand the connection between physical health and wellness and mental health and wellness, the ability to still have a positive campus experience. That would be our focus.”
Through it all, Labrosse has been reminded, at many a turn, of the incredible resiliency of his varsity crew. The group has staged training sessions at outposts right across the region, understanding the importance of growing the sport on a local level. Even as he and his crew of a dozen or so skiers made the trek to Capreol for a 25 km outing of classic skiing recently, smiles were abundant.
“I am reminded, so often, of just how awesome they are and how amazing they have been to stay positive and motivated.”
Small wonder that the emotions of coaching speak to Erik Labrosse even more profoundly than his experiences as an athlete - in spite of how incredible the latter might have been.
With co-captains Hannah Cutler and Augustin Marks de Chabris showing the way, the Laurentian nordic ski team that will host the OUA Championships on the weekend of February 25th to the 27th also features: Maddie Norman, Danica Levesque, Meredith Kusnierczyk, Faith Goudie, Logan Bach, Maryse Leveille, Sydney Brooks, James Norrie, Laydon Bursey, Mitchell Slobodian (student coach/mentor), Cameron Boland and Cormac Adams.