VANCOUVER — Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is trying to take in all of the details as she trains with her teammates on the Canadian women's soccer squad this week.
With her playing career coming to a close, she knows these moments mark the end of an era.
“For me, it’s the little things. It’s sitting around the lunch table having jokes and talking with the team, just those bonds and friendships that we’ve created over the years, enjoying these last moments together," Labbé said.
"I know it’s not the end. I know it’s only the start of what’s going to be a lifelong friendship with so many of them.”
After backstopping the Canadians to an Olympic championship in Tokyo last summer, the 35-year-old Labbé announced her retirement in January and closed out her professional career with Paris-Saint Germain.
She'll play her final games when Canada hosts Nigeria in a pair of friendlies in Vancouver on Friday and Langford, B.C., on Monday.
As Canada prepared for the matchups this week, head coach Bev Priestman kept an eye on the veteran 'keeper.
“(Labbé) seems incredibly happy. And to me that means she’s made the right decision," Priestman said. "She seems fresh, she seems ready, she’s trained well going into the game. It’ll be a really special moment.”
There's been ample time to go through the emotions of retiring, Labbé said. Now it's time to celebrate.
The netminder expects to have "a section full" of friends, family and supporters in the stands for Friday's game at B.C. Place.
"Being with the team, I’m feeling the excitement of being back in this environment, being back in this stadium and looking around and knowing that (on Friday) I’ll be able to play in front of a lot of friends and family and fans and the communities that have really supported us," she said. "It’s really exciting. I’m just happy.”
Labbé has been a stalwart presence in Canada's goal for many years.
Hailing from Stony Plain, Alta., she has made 85 appearances for the national squad, including 80 starts, and earned 43 clean sheets.
Labbé was a force in net during the gold medal win in Tokyo, persevering to help her country clinch the win over Sweden on penalties. The performance led some to dub her "Canada's national minister of defence" and she was named runner-up for last year's Best FIFA Women's Goalkeeper honour.
The Olympic performance was predated by years of grinding and resilience, often as a backup 'keeper, noted Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair.
"Last summer, to see all her hard work and determination pay off and to make those saves and to help win us a gold, this team will never be the same," she said. "But it will be forever changed because of her.”
For goalkeeper Kalien Sheridan, Labbé has been a teacher as well as a teammate, showing her how to lead through communication.
“It’s bittersweet. Obviously we want to keep our best players here as long as possible and she’s just been such a mentor to me and a lot of the other goalkeepers here. And we’re so excited to celebrate her this weekend," Sheridan said.
"It’s going to be hard to have her leaving us officially, but we want her to go out on the highest of highs that she possibly can. And we want (Vancouver's) B.C. Place to be screaming her name for 90 minutes straight."
Returning to home soil to face Nigeria will allow the Canadians to give Labbé the praise and celebration she deserves while the team continues to celebrate its gold-medal win, said forward Nichelle Prince.
All 22 players from the Olympic championship squad are on the roster for the friendlies, plus seven new additions looking to cement their status for future international contests.
Canada, ranked sixth in the world, may need the youthful energy as it takes on No. 39 Nigeria.
The two sides haven't faced one another since a friendly in Spain in 2019, but the Canadians know they're in for a tough test, said Prince.
"Nigeria’s going to be a very athletic team. They’re going to come out and be very physical on us and try to take advantage of our counter attack," she said. "So I just think we have to be careful with the ball and punish them when they get numbers forward. But I think it’s going to be good prep for us for this summer.”
This summer will see Canada compete in the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico, a tournament that will act as a qualifier for both the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
While the group is eager to build toward the crucial tournament, it feels odd at times to be celebrating the past while preparing for the future, said centreback Vanessa Gilles.
“It’s a little peculiar because obviously we want to celebrate the amazing things that we’ve done … but also focus ahead and focus on getting the group together and ready for the CONCACAF qualifiers that are coming up in two months," she said. "So just the balance of those two are a little peculiar.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press