Kevin Labanc was “really behind his group.”
That’s what USA Hockey National Team Development Program associate coach Nick Fohr remembered about a 15-year-old Labanc.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of Labanc’s story. In a San Jose Hockey Now exclusive last month, Labanc charted his rise from USNTDP last pick (“I wasn’t even on their radar”) to San Jose Sharks stardom.
Fohr, who coached Labanc before he was drafted by San Jose in 2014, joined SJHN to offer further insight into Labanc’s formative years. Fohr shared a first-hand account of how Labanc turned his time in the USNTDP shooting room into NHL success — and recalled the first time that Labanc, who’s of Slovakian heritage, met his grandmother in Piestany.
Sheng Peng: Can you describe Kevin Labanc as a 15-year-old?
Nick Fohr: Kevin was a scrawny little kid. (laughs)
It’s interesting. I’ve been here for nine seasons now. When I came in, that was Kevin’s first year, so I wasn’t part of choosing that team. I had no idea about any of the players. I actually was hired two days before the players arrived.
Kevin was one of our younger players on that team — he might have been our youngest.
SP: You mentioned he was skinny. You mentioned he was the youngest. Honestly, from a distance, did it look like he didn’t belong physically?
NF: Yeah, we had a couple of other smaller kids, one of them was Tyler Kelleher, who was short, but he was stocky. He was still kind of built. The other one was Anthony Louis, I think he was our smallest player, 5-foot-7 and only 135 to 140 pounds. I think Kevin was about 150.
But we also had Michael McCarron, a [Montreal Canadiens] first-round pick, who was 6-foot-5, 225 pounds.
That team also had a lot of Michigan-area kids that knew each other, that had played against each other a lot. I don’t think Kevin really knew anybody on that team when he came in, which makes it even a little bit more intimidating for a kid like that.
SP: You weren’t part of the group who selected him, but what caught USNTDP’s eye with Kevin?
NF: He had a lot of skill. He could make a lot of plays.
It’s funny. I was just talking with our new head coach here, Adam Nightingale, who just came to us from the Detroit Red Wings. Told him that I was getting on this phone call with you to talk about Kevin. And he goes, “God, Kevin, there’s something with him like he just he seems so dangerous all the time. When he’s on the power play, he could score at any second.”
I said, “He’s kind of always had that. He looks dangerous. There’s something to him, how he postures himself, how he postures the puck. He’s got the little head fake. He’s got the little false information that he likes to send to the defenders, that kind of moves people out of the way, which makes him dangerous.”
There’s a hitch to his giddy-up. The way he shoots the puck, it’s real quick and snappy. It just catches people off-guard, which makes him super-dangerous. And he had that when he played for us.
He was 150 when he played for us, you know? So it wasn’t quite as quick and quite as fast and quite as hard back in those days. So he didn’t score quite as much back in those days.
But what he did do, he worked, man. He spent a lot of time in our shooting room.
He didn’t have a car, and at times, he had to wait for his family that he was living with to pick him up. But instead of sitting there and waiting, he’d go shoot pucks in the shooting room. It’s funny, when people spend a lot of time doing something over and over and over again, how good they get at it.
Those minutes everyday can quickly add up to hours, that quickly add up to more. All that time he invested, when he decided to play in Barrie, when he started scoring goals, it wasn’t a surprise to us.
SP: Can you shed some light on Kevin’s regimen in the shooting room?
NF: He was by himself because most of the kids were gone.
It wasn’t a very big space, but he had a net. He just worked on snapping the puck to the net. Accuracy and getting his shot harder and stronger, just constantly working on those motions. Fatiguing those muscles and making those muscles stronger. They’re not normal muscles that people use.
SP: And that deceptiveness you said he had, where does that come from?
NF: Some kids just kind of have it. When he came to us, he had that.
At times it was bad, at times it was good at the younger ages, because sometimes he would lean too much on that.
But he’s learned how to really use that now and use it to his advantage. When you watch him play for San Jose, he does a real good job of manipulating the defenders to open up just a fraction of a measure.
SP: You had Kevin for two years. Looking at the statistics, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two seasons. But what were the key differences between Kevin when he walked in and Kevin when he walked out.
NF: Kevin when he walked out was a lot more confident kid.
When he came to us, he was maybe a little intimidated by the other guys, not just size and strength, but like I said, I don’t think he knew many of the guys. It’s an intimidating environment as a 15-year-old kid to walk into with the best players in the country in your age group.
The actual foundation that he built [at USNTDP] in his self-confidence was huge.
It’s just the daily routine of what we do: It was the the hours he spent in that shooting room. It was the time he invested in that weight room. It was all the hours of practice because we average about 130 practice days a year here, which is way more than he’s doing now, obviously. (laughs)
His time with us wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t all roses.
When you look back at our depth in the end, he was in a fourth-line role for us. He wasn’t in a scoring role. He wasn’t the guy that we leaned on to try to go and score a goal.
But what he learned from being in that support-type role, it was also valuable for him.
He had the right mind-set to it. He understood that today, he’s the fourth-line player on the US national team, but he’s going to be able to take the skills that he learned by being in that type of situation and apply that to his future.
He understood that patience was important. Taking his time and investing his time was important. He maintained the focus of where he was going.
He didn’t worry about: Why am I not the first-line winger on this team? I should be the first-line winger. He didn’t get caught up in that type of stuff — that’s very, very hard for young kids to do.
SP: Thanks so much for your time, Nick. Just to finish up, do you have any more favorite Kevin Labanc stories?
KL: It’s honestly one of my favorite stories, and I don’t tell it very often.
It was one of the coolest experiences that I’ve ever seen.
We played an event in Slovakia with Kevin that year. Kevin’s family moved over from Slovakia to the US before he was born.
Kevin would have been 16. It would have been our February event that year, so that would be February 2012.
He had never met his grandmother before. We went to Slovakia to play and he was able to meet his grandmother on that trip.
I’ll never forget it: I was in the lobby of the rink at Piestany, Slovakia, and his family was there. He walked out, and got to meet his grandmother for the first time as a 16-year-old kid.
It was something else.
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