It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a stretch of time in the early 2010s when the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t having much success on the ice. After a surprising run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, the team regressed heavily as their roster of overachieving veteran players struggled to produce at the same rate. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, they missed the playoffs, leading to a number of big trades that helped shape the future of the franchise.
Despite these struggles, there was hope brewing with the Lightning’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliates, the Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch. First, the 2011-12 Admirals set a professional ice hockey record by winning 28 consecutive games, before going on to win the 2011 Calder Cup.
Following that success, the Lightning moved their AHL affiliate to Syracuse and continued winning. While they didn’t capture back-to-back Calder Cups, they did make it back to the 2013 Final, pushing the eventual champion Grand Rapids Griffins to Game 6.
Out of these dominant teams grew a core of young players for the Lightning to build a Stanley Cup-winning champion around, with names like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and even head coach Jon Cooper and current general manager Julien BriseBois being key parts of their success.
However, not every player went on to be a star. Making the jump from the AHL to the NHL is difficult, and it’s common for a great minor-league player to not be able to find consistent ice time with the big club.
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One such player was Pierre-Cedric Labrie, whose big personality, big hair, and big hits were impossible to ignore on the ice. If you followed the Lightning at the time, Labrie was often in the talks of being one of the potential core moving forward, as he brought needed size and a tough-as-nails element to the franchise.
Labrie Worked His Way Around the Hockey World
While he only saw limited action with the Lightning, Labrie started in 46 games from 2011 through 2014. He made his presence known with that time, laying down 100 hits and racking up 65 penalty minutes with posting five points.
However, in the AHL, Labrie was a well-known menace, as he posted at least 100 penalty minutes in three of his four seasons with the Admirals/ Crunch. He also produced solid scoring numbers with the eventual Calder Cup champions in 2011-12, with 35 regular-season points in 56 games, and nine points in 18 playoff games.
While he was unable to carve out a role with the Lightning, these numbers showed that there was still a lot of life in Labrie’s hockey career. He played for five more AHL teams over the next five years and even took on two seasons in Germany with Eisbaren Berlin before returning to North America for the 2021-22 season with the Hartford Wolf Pack. He played 21 games with Hartford before closing the circle and signing a two-year contract with the Crunch.
Labrie’s Return To Lightning a Positive for the Franchise
Historically, Labrie’s departure from the franchise was meaningful as it represented a shift in Tampa Bay’s culture. They moved from being a fringe playoff team to a contender that couldn’t afford to have a player on their roster that was simply good, but not good enough.
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At age 35, it’s unlikely that Labrie will make it back to the NHL with a loaded Lightning franchise that is looking to win its third-straight Stanley Cup. However, his return to the Crunch is still meaningful, as he can bring a needed veteran presence to an AHL team that is full of young talent that can use a player with his experience to help teach them the ups and downs of the league.
Plus, there’s something fun about seeing ‘Nacho’ Labrie (as he was affectionately called by fans) return nearly a decade after he departed the franchise. So, even if his NHL playing time was brief, every Lightning fan of that era will remember seeing ‘Nacho’ Labrie flying around the ice.