Todd Labranche decided pretty quickly that an ongoing problem with shin splints would limit his lacrosse aspirations as a player.
So the former PoCo Saint pulled on a striped referee’s jersey.
On Saturday (April 16), Labranche will officiate his 400th National Lacrosse League game, between the Vancouver Warriors and Calgary Roughnecks at Rogers Arena.
He’s one of only two referees in the pro league to reach the milestone.
Labranche, who grew up in Port Coquitlam but moved to Red Deer, AB, in 2014, said he fell in love with the speed and athleticism of lacrosse the minute he picked up a stick and ball when he was nine years old.
A few years later — as soon as he was allowed — he supplemented his passion by refereeing mini-tyke games.
Labranche played in the Saints system through junior. But the sport’s quick starts and stops, turns and cuts across the floor pained his shins so much he could never finish a game. Referees, however, move mostly in straight lines.
So Labranche put away his lacrosse stick and devoted himself to officiating, working his way up through the ranks until he was hired at the age of 22 as one of three part-time referees at the time in the Western Lacrosse Association.
As the “new kid” with a whistle, Labranche opened his ears to learn all he could from senior officials in the league like future Hall-of-Famer Ron Crosato and Ray Durante.
Labranche said they taught him how to carry himself on the floor, how to talk to players and coaches so each would walk away feeling like they got a fair shake.
They showed him the importance of developing thick skin and a short memory because no referee is ever perfect and they can’t afford to dwell on past mistakes.
Most importantly, Labranche said, he learned how not to take things that happen in a lacrosse game personally.
“Lacrosse is so subjective,” he said. “Not always is everybody going to agree with your opinion.”
A chance encounter with lacrosse legend Chris Gill at Coquitlam Centre mall in 2001 led Labranche to apply for a referee post at the NLL, just as the pro league awarded a franchise to the Vancouver Ravens.
Now, instead of being the bad guy in front of several hundred people in dark, local barns like the old PoCo Rec Centre or New Westminster’s Queen’s Park Arena, he would bear the scorn of 10,000 or more fans, with his every error or missed call replayed on the giant video scoreboards overhead and potentially inciting even more wrath.
Labranche said he also had to wrap his head around the multitude of rule differences between the way lacrosse is regulated by the Canadian Lacrosse Association and by the pro game, as well as making himself heard over the constant din of loud music that plays through games in the big league arenas.
Still, when Labranche was standing on the floor of the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo with 19,000 fans singing the national anthems prior to the NLL’s championship game in 2008, he said the hair stood up on his neck with the thrill of it all.
Over the course of his 21 years as an NLL official, Labranche said he’s seen the players get quicker and more skillful.
“Everyone can score goals, everyone can play defence,” he said. “The pace has increased dramatically.”
Labranche said the secret to his longevity has been coming to terms with his role.
“It’s really just a feeling of how you managed the game,” he said. “We know we’re not going to get everything; there’s some calls that will be left out there. But you have to make sure the players are safe.”
Now 57, Labranche figured 400 pro games would be his ultimate achievement in lacrosse.
But two seasons lost to the COVID-19 pandemic bought him time to build a gym in his basement so he could be in shape to shoot for 500.
“The league is getting younger and I’m not,” Labranche said.
But, he added quickly, “I love the game.”