When a Near Tragedy Becomes a Life Catalyst
SPARTA is the annual publication produced by the Trinity Western University Athletics Department, telling the stories of our Spartan community.
Words | Bailey Broadbent
April 6, 2018 is a day Isaac LaBelle will never forget.
Isaac's younger brother, Xavier, at the time an 18-year-old defenceman for the Humboldt Broncos, was one of 29 team members aboard the bus that tragically crashed into a semi-truck on a highway in Saskatchewan. The accident, which was the result of the semi-truck failing to yield at a flashing stop sign, claimed the lives 16 individuals.
Isaac's parents and younger sister were on route to the Broncos playoff game in Nipawin that night. It was Isaac who called to tell them he had heard the Broncos bus had been in an accident. Shortly after that call, they arrived at the scene of the devastating crash – about an hour after it had occurred.
At first, uncertainty surrounded whether Xavier had survived the crash or not. The LaBelle family spent the next few days looking for him – both at the hospital and the morgue. Eventually, their uncertainty gave way to reality. It was determined Xavier had passed away.
Then, in a moment, everything changed.
Two days after the crash, on April 8, the LaBelle family was in Humboldt for the candlelight vigil, which included a video tribute honoring the Broncos team, and the lives lost in the tragedy. Immediately after the vigil, Isaac's father, Paul, received a phone call from the hospital.
Xavier was alive.
Due to Xavier's injuries, he had been misidentified as one of his teammates – Parker Tobin. From their grief sprung great joy, but also sorrow, as another family had now lost a son. Isaac and his family rushed back to Saskatoon to Xavier's bedside.
Xavier had suffered a fractured skull, 16 broken vertebrae, damaged nerves to one arm and both legs, numerous internal injuries, various fractures and lacerations to his face, and a brain injury that, at the time, led to short-term amnesia. But, he was alive.
In the two years since that day, Xavier has traversed an astonishing transition back to everyday life and the entire LaBelle family has witnessed a miracle.
"Seeing what my brother has gone through over the last two years, recovering from surgeries, battling through pain, and regaining the strength to do the basics in life, like walking, has been incredibly inspiring to see," Isaac says. "The whole thing has been a defining point for me and has greatly changed my perspective on life. I am grateful for the gift of life, and for our faith, that has helped my family and I on this miraculous journey."
Since nearly losing his brother two years ago, LaBelle, 22, has completely changed his outlook on life as he has journeyed to Trinity Western University and embraced what it means to be a Spartan.
Labelle, who is studying Biology at TWU, is one of the integral "glue guys" within the Spartans men's hockey team. He has brought a blend of lightheartedness to the locker room, unimaginable life experience, and a competitiveness on the ice that recently saw him conclude the 2019-20 season with one of the most impressive rookie goaltending performances in program history.
Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Paul and Tanya LaBelle, Isaac is the oldest of three children, along with Xavier, 20, and Viviana, 12.
Despite Saskatoon's reputation of being a hockey hot bed, Isaac's parents had one rule before he could partake in the inevitability of joining a hockey team.
"They said I had to learn how to skate backwards," LaBelle says. "So I signed up and did power skating for two years before I actually started playing hockey."
He's had a stick in his hand ever since. Playing a mix of positions including forward and defence, LaBelle had his sights set on becoming a goaltender.
"For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a goalie," LaBelle says. "My parents were trying to convince me not to, but in the end I think I won." Won he did, as by Grade 5, LaBelle moved into the crease full-time.
Isaac quickly found success as a netminder, and by his second year of midget, he began playing at the AAA level for his hometown Saskatoon Contacts of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League. "My brother Xavier was a big part of helping me find success," LaBelle says. "There was always competitiveness between us growing up, and that really helped push me."
Both Isaac and Xavier, who spent time playing together with the Contacts, including a run to the Telus Cup national championship in 2016, started the 2017-2018 season with the Humboldt Broncos. However, Isaac eventually found his home away from home with the Waywayseecappo Wolverines of Manitoba's Junior 'A' Hockey League. "The community was awesome, the team was great, and so too was the coaching staff," LaBelle says.
Receiving the majority of starts in the crease, LaBelle would be the first to admit his play on the ice in his first season may not have gone as well as he would have liked, but big things were in store both on and off the ice in his second season.
Upon the graduation of TWU star goalie Silas Matthys in 2018, Spartans coach Barret Kropf began searching for another goaltender. Despite third-year Lucas Mills becoming the successful heir to the mighty throne Matthys had built, Kropf wanted security.
Enter Isaac LaBelle.
Kropf's roots ran deep within the community surrounding the Humboldt tragedy, as he spent two weeks in Saskatchewan following the crash helping support families through his presence, his support and his prayers. He came in contact with Xavier's parents during one of his countless hospital visits in Saskatoon. This relationship ultimately began Isaac's journey.
With Kropf's eyes set on a goaltender, and a previous reference from the Broncos late coach Darcy Haugan, he decided to reach out to Isaac through Xavier. After making a connection, both Kropf and Isaac agreed to keep the dialogue open as he concluded his second and final season, 2018-19, with the Wolverines.
"His size and compete level were two things that really stood out to us," Kropf says. "His team was constantly winning critical games."
One of their conversations stood out to Kropf. "I remember talking to [Isaac] one time midway through the season with his team well out of a playoff spot," Kropf says. "He was adamant they would make the playoffs, and I remember thinking to myself 'Best of luck with that, but that's not going to happen.'"
Sure enough, LaBelle helped lead the Wolverines to a playoff appearance for the first time in three years. In addition to being one of three nominees for the MJHL's MVP award, he was also recognized for his contributions off the ice as one of the MJHL Community Ambassadors.
"The determination and confidence from a player like that is really something special," Kropf says.
While his resolve over the course of the stretch run of the season impressed Kropf, LaBelle became noteworthy to many others for a completely different reason. It had nothing to do with Xavier or the Wolverines success or anything to do with Isaac's goaltending prowess.
Isaac LaBelle looked directly at the camera.
"Nothing like getting Timmy's on a good 'ol Canadian day, eh!?"
Soon after, he became an internet sensation.
"I got a message from TSN, including one from James Duthie," LaBelle says. "It was everywhere."
With Waywayseecappo's ice getting outfitted with new decals for the postseason, the team was forced to practice in a nearby town just days before the start of the 2018-19 playoffs. On the bus ride back to their rink, LaBelle's coach posed a simple question to his team.
"Who wants some Tim Hortons?"
Returning to their home facility and with the team still fully dressed in their gear, the team decided to take a pit stop at a nearby Tim Hortons.
After going into the coffee chain still wearing his full ensemble of skates, pads, a mask and everything in between, LaBelle went back to the bus, where Erik Swar, the team's marketing manager, was waiting to capture the moment.
"He filmed me as I walked back to the bus," LaBelle says with a laugh. "I guess it was a pretty Canadian moment."
TSN Hockey anchor James Duthie later tweeted out the video, calling LaBelle "… the most Canadian Canadian."
It was classic LaBelle.
"I like to keep things light and make people laugh."
Not long after his 15 seconds of national fame, and following his team's playoff stint, he committed to TWU.
"I don't think it could have been a better experience being able to play in Waywayseecappo," LaBelle said. "But I was ready for university, and after taking a tour of Trinity Western at the end of the season I really liked what I saw.
"It was a pretty easy decision to come."
A team-first player, LaBelle was ready to do whatever it took to help his new team at TWU. And while he was likely expecting his notable first impression to come on the ice, it came off the ice during a pre-season game in Castlegar, B.C.
"We had a neutral site game at Selkirk College against SAIT, and they had asked if we could provide a commentator for the game," Kropf says.
Knowing he wasn't going to play in the game, LaBelle stepped up to the microphone. "I thought to myself 'It's always good to try something new.'"
LaBelle spent the following night leading up to the game learning the ins and outs of hockey commentary.
"I watched some videos and studied a couple websites," he says. "I found out some of the NHL broadcasters have these cheat sheets, so I said to myself 'I guess I'm going to make myself a cheat sheet.'"
Despite being short-manned to just 13 skaters due to sickness and injuries, the Spartans prevailed by scoring in the final three minutes to pick up a 3-2 win for their first victory of the pre-season.
"Isaac came into the locker room afterwards like a little kid that had found his new toy," Kropf says. "He was like 'Guys, you need to listen to this call.'"
LaBelle's new teammates demanded he plug the replay into the speaker, and they were amazed from what they heard. "If the guy ever wants to work for TSN all he has to do is submit that tape," Kropf says. "Guys were high-fiving him and congratulating him."
Coming out of the booth and back into the net, LaBelle quickly translated his broadcast success to the ice, as he opened his first season at TWU in impressive fashion.
LaBelle started the season winning his first four starts, helping the Spartans come out to a program-best 12-game winning streak to open the year. "I had some struggles at first, but we were still finding ways to win games," LaBelle says. "The team was helping me a lot."
After taking his first loss midway through the season, LaBelle took his game to another level.
"He became everything we could have hoped for," Kropf says.
Over his final four starts in the year, LaBelle surrendered just three goals, averaging a staggering 0.67 goals-against average and .971 save percentage. His average of 2.34 goals-against throughout the season led the entire British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League.
"I think I just started to find my groove in the second half of the season," LaBelle says. "I was getting better at scheduling and managing school around sports, and became more mentally dialed in every game."
When it comes to LaBelle finding success, Kropf believes the fit was perfect from the moment he arrived.
"I don't think he could have come to a better hockey team."
With the Spartans many multi-layered connections to the Humboldt Broncos crash, LaBelle had joined a team at TWU that provided connections and comfortability as he walked through the aftermath of both his brother's and his family's experience.
TWU captain Jarrett Fontaine was once the captain in Humboldt and was still close friends with a lot of the Broncos players who were on that bus. Jordan Bogress was with Humboldt until Christmas of that 2017-18 season. Josh and Joe Sylvain both once played under Haugan when he was the coach of the North Peace Navigators. Logan Casavant was a member of the Nipawin Hawks, who were set to host Humboldt on the night of the accident.
"We had five guys who were just one degree removed from the situation," Kropf says. "Isaac was another one of us, and it was just another God moment, with him coming here in the midst of other guys having a similar journey."
With his eyes set on professional college for medicine or pharmacy, LaBelle has used a tragedy that almost claimed the life of his best friend and brother, as a catalyst for change in his own life.
"I realize now how important life is, and to treat every day like it's your last," he says. "I've really learned to tell people how much I love them, and how important they are to me.
"I've tried to use that experience my family went through two years ago as inspiration, to be a better hockey player and a better person."
Isaac Labelle's story is the second piece of an extensive 14-part series, detailing the people and the stories that make up Spartan Athletics.
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For more information on TWU Spartan Athletics, please visit TWU Spartans.