A Red Deer man has made history by being the first referee to officiate 400 games in the National Lacrosse League.
Todd Labranche reached the milestone by refereeing a game between the Vancouver Warriors and Calgary Roughnecks on April 16.
“It is crazy because I didn’t start in the league until I was 36. I had to stick it out through 21 years,” he told The Advocate Monday.
Labranche, who grew up in British Columbia but has lived in Red Deer for eight years, started playing lacrosse when he was six years old. When he was 12, a coach encouraged him and his teammates to serve as referees for minor lacrosse.
“I just stuck with it and was doing it as well as playing through my junior career. I decided at the end of my junior career I probably didn’t have much of a future as a player, so I decided to focus on officiating,” he said.
Now, at 57 years old, Labranche loves the game as much as ever.
“You can go to a hockey game and see three goals. But if you go to a lacrosse game, you might see 30,” he said.
“The athletic ability of the players at the NLL level now, there are some games where I’m officiating and I’m mesmerized by their skill, talent and creativity. Lacrosse has been a passion of mine for a long, long time.”
The most vivid highlight of his career was when he officiated the NLL Championship for the first time, he said.
“I can still feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up thinking about it,” Labranche said.
“That was in 2008. Almost 19,000 people in the crowd in Buffalo. Standing there during the anthem and hearing the crowd roar, and get hyped up and excited, I felt goosebumps. That was an incredible experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
There are some lighter career highlights that stick out to Labranche as well. He was officiating a game in Minnesota on Veterans Day – prior to the game, a bird keeper brought a bald eagle into the arena for the national anthem. Labranche was standing right next to that bird keeper when the eagle got loose.
“All of a sudden this big bald eagle is flying right around my head and I freaked out while the anthem’s going on,” he recalled with a laugh.
Fortunately, the bird keeper had the eagle on a strap and was able to reel it back in.
The most viral moment of Labranche’s career came when he officiated a game between Vancouver and the Colorado Mammoth in 2018. During the matchup, Labranche called a penalty on two players before announcing to the crowd: “These two were clearly having issues with each other (and) could not restrain themselves, so we’re going to give them two minutes to think about what they’ve done.”
Labranche said it’s funny looking back on that moment because he forgot the league’s commissioner was in attendance that night.
“I thought, ‘Well this is either going to be the highlight of my career or the end of my career depending on how he receives it.’ I ran into the tunnel after the game and he high-fived me so I thought it’d be OK.”
A few years ago Labranche believed he would retire after hitting the 400-game milestone.
“Now that I’ve hit that mark, I’ve kind of reassessed – I’m going to shoot for 500. That’s probably going to be another three to five years of sticking with it. Hopefully, the body can hold up and keep me going for another 100 games.”