400 games in the NLLis a long time. With the current 18 game schedule that is still over 22 seasons. There are players in the NLL who are not even 22 years old, let alone playing at the highest level of lacrosse for 22 seasons.
When initially looking to write this story, I thought I would be covering the accomplishments and accolades of Todd Labranche, who will be officiating his 400th NLL game this weekend but as I was talking with Todd, there were so many interesting points of conversation that many NLL fans would not have expected to hear or would not know. So while 400 games officiated is no easy feat in the span of 21 seasons for Labranche, his thoughts around the game and impact he has had on the NLL is much larger than just dressing in a striped uniform.
He doesn’t negate the record and recognizes the importance of the it, saying “I’m proud of it. I was talking with Dan Dawson who was supposed to break John Tavares’ record in Vancouver but was out with a knee injury. I said to him I was disappointed I wasn’t able to call his record game at 307 but joked that it was nothing, that game was going to be 390 for me. It’s something I will be able to talk to my grandkids about.”
It’s even more impressive when you find out Labranche did not start refereeing in the NLL until he was 36 years. “At the time in 2001, the League was a bit foreign to me. It had never really made its way out west until the Vancouver Ravens and Calgary Roughnecks expanded. The NLL was looking for officials and I threw my hand up. I had been officiating in the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) for 13 or 14 years at that point.” The expansion gave him an opportunity to get his feet into a different version of the sport that he would soon dedicate his full-time officiating duties to.
You could have thought officiating was in his DNA from an early age, having started to referee lacrosse games at the age of 12. As he went through his teen years, he explained what made him change his focus from playing the game to officiating. “I finished my junior career at the age of 21 and that’s when my legs started getting bad where I could not keep up with all the twists and turns playing of the game. I felt like I had a bit of a knack for officiating, and I just decided to keep doing that to stay involved in the game.”
Labranche would be a referee with the WLA starting at 22 years old. Over the years he learned from great mentors and found his footing as a referee. A big piece of that is how to manage communications with players and coaches on both teams. “The absolute key is to be forthright, to be up front and honest. If you didn’t see something the same way they did, you need to say that.”
“If you are upfront and you are honest, then you start to garner some respect and the ability to have important two-way conversation. Some players will come and say their piece and walk away. I tell them to come back and let me give them my answer. ‘I gave you the respect to allow you to ask your question now it’s my turn to give you an answer.’”
The game of lacrosse has changed in his 30 plus years of officiating and is coming to a better place for all parties to understand the game better and to grow it. There is now an emphasis across multiple box lacrosse leagues and properties to play by a unified rulebook, which has not been the case in the past and is what prevented Labranche from officiating Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) games in addition to his NLL duties.
Rule consistency will help not just players, but fans too as Todd mentioned, “Being able to go to your local game in the summer and then to your NLL game, you would have been confused trying to understand the different rulebooks. There are certain nuances that are different in the games. Even to this day, players will comment and say a call is an interference which we don’t have in the NLL unless it’s a penalty. What they’re asking about is a Canadian rule.”
Todd emphasizes with his younger colleagues that they need to know the NLL rulebook inside and out. That they can’t just show up on gamedays and expect to be great, they need to do the work through the week just like a player or coach does.
When looking at his weekly routine, Labranche mentioned:
“I try to set one day a week, Monday, where I don’t do anything, lacrosse related to give my head and body a rest so I can come at it refreshed. Every Tuesday we go back and review clips from games from the prior weekend. Tuesday night we have conference calls with Brian (Lemon, EVP, Lacrosse Operations) and Don Koharski (NLL Director of Officials) to review any specific rules or clips. Wednesday and Thursday are preparation days to read the rulebook, to study, to look at the rosters for our upcoming games, and review game tape from previous matchups from the teams. One of the mentalities Koho (Koharski) has brought to us this season is that we are the third team out on the floor, and we need to be better prepared than the other teams out there. “
Still, Labranche says that isn’t the hardest part of being a referee. He says the hardest part is trying to keep up with the speed of the game and to be able to make that instantaneous call with so many factors in play. Think of a crease dive where you would be trying to watch a player’s feet, if they were pushed into the crease, if they made contact with a goalie, and where the ball is when the player lands.
“I was once asked to wear a camera on my helmet, and I said I would be thrilled to just to be able to give fans, coaches, and players to the perspective of what we have to view in the blink of an eye.”
Labranche says there are three important factors that make a good official: thick skin, a short memory, and a good sense of humor. He says one of his favorite compliments he has received over the years was from the Georgia Swarm’s Owner and General Manager, John Arlotta. He said he loves watching Labranche officiate since he always has a smile on his face. “Enjoy what you are doing and have a smile on your face while doing it” said Labranche.
Over the years, Labranche has seen some of the game’s greats including names like Grant, Tavares, Gait, Kelusky and more. While he could not admit to just one favorite memory or player to watch, he did have an interesting mention about how good some of these players were. When talking about the Gait’s, who he officiated in Juniors, he mentioned, “I remember doing a Junior game and looking at the game sheet where they won 36-9 and between the two (Paul and Gary) they had 54 points in that game.”
When asked on his legacy on the game, he could not think of any specifics but did mention: “The one thing I will be known for is the call in Colorado. It is probably something that will live beyond me”. Don’t remember it? Watch it here.
So what is next for Labranche after hitting his 400th game this weekend? He says he wants to do more. Given his workload, where in 2015 he worked 32 games in a 16-game season, he is aiming for 500, or about another four years, “whether my body lets me or not that’s to be determined” he added.
And for what he is most proud of through his career and what he has always tried to reiterate is consistency. He has always tried to call the game fairly and consistently, that his performance should be consistent on a week-to-week basis. What you get from him in one week, you should get the same every other week.
The consistency to be available for assignment is another piece he is proud of, even at the expense of some personal matters. “I’ve never darked out a weekend in my 21-year career where I couldn’t be available. That’s all due to the support of my wife. She has been so supportive. I missed my father in law’s 65th birthday for an assignment and she never said a word about it, she has been an amazing support.”
While Todd may be towards the ending stages of his career, he does have future aspirations for the NLL. He hopes to get to a point where officials, players, coaches, and other staff alike can make the NLL their full-time position and focus on it each day.
With the potential to add more expansion teams and more games on the schedule in the future Labranche says “I’ve told our younger officials that 400 games will be nothing with the way the league is expanding. They should be able to crush 400 games and I hope they are able to do that as full-time officials.”
While there may be more officials who end up reaching the 400-game plateau in the future, Todd will be the first. The impact he has made on the NLL, the game of lacrosse, and its community is understated as the man in the stripes during games. Referees tend to never get the love at the end of the game but as he put it, “you can’t play the game without officials.”