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Only thing bigger than Pierre-Cedric Labrie’s presence on the ice is his role off of it

Pierre-Cedric Labrie is not someone who is good at flying under the radar.

On the ice he is unmistakable; a mountain of a man who uses every inch and pound of his body to make life difficult for the opposition. But every time Labrie chips in a strong play, a hit, or a goal while on the ice, away from the public eye he provides an equally important set of intangibles.

In just his first season with the Rockford IceHogs, Labrie is already a favorite among fans, coaches and teammates alike. The forward from Baie-Comeau, Quebec has made a name for himself, both for the hard-nosed brand of hockey his 6-3, 243-pound frame brings to the roster, and for his jovial personality that happens to be even larger. One would be hard pressed to find the 28-year-old around the rink without a smile on his face, which is just part of the reason why Labrie - an alternate captain - has been so well-received around Rockford.

“He’s got a great attitude and approach, and a team-first mentality, which we really appreciate,” said IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent. “And then with his French-Canadian accent, he always provides some funny moments for us in the dressing room. He’s a fun guy to be around, and he keeps it loose, which are important things. “

Regional dialects aside, Labrie prides himself on being able to provide his fellow IceHogs a diversion from the everyday stressors that come with being a professional athlete. A telling example of this comedic relief was when he organized a fake interview with forwards Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill, who had recently enjoyed birthdays. Using the camera and microphone as a decoy, Labrie personally delivered his presents to Danault and McNeill - shaving cream pies to the face. While the gag was partially intended to indulge his inner class clown, when it comes to locker room shenanigans and team activities, there is a method to Labrie’s madness.

“For me as a leader, I’m just here to try to make everything smooth and limit the tension,” Labrie explained. “I try to lead the way by example and I try to have fun with it. I like to get everyone together.”

In the midst of his eighth year as a pro, Labrie is an integral part of a select group of veterans tasked with leading a Rockford team loaded with youth. Starting in the Vancouver Canucks organization, and spending the previous four years in the Tampa Bay Lightning system before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks this past July, Labrie’s 482 professional games is third-most on the IceHogs roster. Only center Peter Regin (499) and goaltender Michael Leighton (542) have more games on their resumes. With all of this experience, Labrie knows when and where to offer guidance to his younger teammates, and when to let them learn on their own.

“Guys like [Brandon Mashinter], [Regin], [Cody Bass], [Zach Miskovic], [Leighton], and myself, we try to verbally show the way - like when we see small details that we can correct,” Labrie said. “But on the ice, we do a lot of video, guys can see their shifts and the staff is really good at telling the guys what they need to work on. Our job is really just showing examples of the work ethic, and the rest, those guys know what to do on the ice.”

As for Labrie’s own job on the ice, he is relied upon to live up to his imposing figure - adding a dash of physicality and intensity to the Rockford forward ranks. Labeled by Dent as an “energy guy,” Labrie is often the guy to spark his teammates by throwing his body around, as well as - when the situation calls for it - his fists.

But simply labeling Labrie a bruiser would be a great disservice, as the forward has been capable of contributing to the IceHogs’ offensive efforts as much as their defense. Through 50 games played, Labrie has chipped in 13 points (8g-5a), on pace for his best offensive output since the 2011-12 season as a member of the Norfolk Admirals.

He is a guy that his coaches trust in any scenario, one of Rockford’s best penalty killers, and recently added an overtime game-winning goal during a Feb. 27 IceHogs win at Texas. While he has found recent success paired on Rockford’s third line with fellow veterans Regin and Mashinter, Labrie doesn’t care where he is slotted in the lineup.

“If coach decides to put me on the fourth line one day, it’s fine with me. I’ll find a way to do my job. For me it’s just doing the little things: going to the net, stopping at the net, chipping it in and not turning the puck over at the blue line - those things are huge,” Labrie explained. “If my line brings a goal a game and stays in the plus, our job is done.”

Labrie’s leadership and willingness to do whatever he is asked to make him an ideal player to wear a letter on his sweater, especially since it looks as if IceHogs captain Joakim Nordstrom will be with the Blackhawks for the remainder of the season. With the AHL regular season winding down, the IceHogs have their eyes locked onto what would be the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2010. Luckily for them, they have a pair of alternate captains who are well versed with the playoffs.

Since his AHL rookie season with the Manitoba Moose in 2007-08, Labrie has been a part of four different playoff teams. He doesn’t just have experience making the postseason, he knows what it takes to win, owning a Calder Cup Championship ring from when the 2011-12 Admirals claimed the league title. Norfolk posted a dominant 15-3 record during their playoff run, winning their last 10 games en route to their first-ever championship. Labrie posted nine points (5g-4a) along the way.

Along with fellow captain Cody Bass, who won a title with the Binghamton Senators in 2011, Labrie helps bring a championship pedigree to the playoff-starved IceHogs, something that is invaluable to Dent and the coaching staff.

“It’s very important, we talked about [the postseason experience] from day one. We had them share their experiences with the team at the beginning of the year, how much fun it is and how many memories you gain from those experiences,” Dent explained. “P.C.’s playoff experience and his familiarity in playing in those tough, hard games down the stretch to get into the playoffs can really help our team.”

The difference between making the playoffs and ending up on the outside is miniscule in the ultra-competitive AHL - a lesson Rockford fans have been all-too familiar with in recent years. According to Labrie, the key to taking the step from being a solid regular season club to a title contender isn’t necessarily the pieces that make up the team, but rather the team’s mindset every night. So far, he likes what he sees from his colleagues.

“You want 20 guys in the lineup who are all gamers, you don’t want a guy bailing on a puck on the boards. If the guy can’t do his part, then it’s a turnover or a scoring chance and it could change the whole game,” Labrie said. “It’s all about little details - a perfect example is [Ryan] Hartman. Young guy, but he’s always on the right side of the puck, so you can put that guy out in the last minute of the game in the playoffs. Even if it’s his first year, you know he is going to game it out - that’s the kind of identity we want heading into the playoff stretch.”

Labrie has been a vital part of the Rockford IceHogs identity so far this season, and if they end up playing their way into May and June, it can be reasonably assumed that he is one of the reasons why. Whether it is with his relaxed, fun-loving persona off the ice, his punishing, high-octane style of play on the ice or his wealth of primetime experience, the big veteran is someone that opponents fear, fans gravitate toward and teammates revere.

All of Labrie’s various roles with his team are working toward a specific end goal; trying to get the best out of himself and his teammates, so the IceHogs can reach their own ultimate goal - a Calder Cup. With just a month and a half remaining in the regular season and Rockford fighting for position atop the Western Conference, Labrie is confident that his squad is on the right track.

“Right now I see the potential of our team, I saw it [a couple weeks ago], we proved ourselves against teams that were ahead of us in the standings, and right now we have to make sure everyone can bring to the table what they brought when we are at our best.”