McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey interviews 2011 Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist Joseph LaBate and discusses the Holy Angels standout season, his decision to stay in Minnesota high school hockey, his college prospects, and the Minneapolis native he patterns his game after.
McKeen's: Tonight's game you played against Shattuck St. Mary's, a team that often does well at the Tier 1 Under-18 National Championships. What's it like playing against Shattuck with Holy Angels as compared to when you'd face them in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League?
LaBate: Yeah. You know? It's tough. They're a great squad. They've got really good players - players from all over the world, basically. I think it's a good learning experience for my team. We're really young, so we'll learn from that, and that's why we play them, because we want to play the best and that's how you get better.
McKeen's: How do they compare against the high school teams you normally play against, or some of the better teams you've played this year?
LaBate: They're very fast, very skilled. Their goaltending is good, too. They're very well-coached. Tom Ward is a great coach.
McKeen's: I can't remember for sure if you were able to play against Shattuck this year in the Elite League, since your Elite League season was abbreviated due to a broken foot. I'm not aware of how that happened, so how did that broken foot happen?
LaBate: I was actually doing a workout early in the morning at school. I missed my normal workout after school, because the place closed, but I came into school to do a workout, was doing some sprints, and just rolled my ankle. I broke my cuboid bone. So, just, it sucked.
McKeen's: How long did that take to heal and how did you feel afterward coming back?
LaBate: It was supposed to take six to eight weeks. I was back on three and half weeks, four weeks later. So, it was tough. You're new on your skates, but you've got a good cast. So, it's a little confidence.
McKeen's: Yeah, it kind of depends. If it's high ankle, forget it. Low ankle? Sometimes you can come back a little earlier. With playing against Shattuck, and I suspect I know the answer to this, is it more difficult to play against them with Holy Angels or in the Elite League, Team Southeast in your case, and why?
LaBate: It's probably more difficult playing against them here. A lot of young guys, some haven't experienced playing against that good of competition. But, like I said, that's how you get better and that's why we do it, to play the best. If you want to be the best, you've got to play the best.
McKeen's: Playing in the Elite League, and the Elite League Playoffs, and the National Invitation Tournament they have, and then the high school season proper, you've been able to play against some pretty talented players, and with some. So, in your opinion, who are some of the best players you've played with and against this season and why?
LaBate: There's quite few good players around Minnesota. I think Mario Lucia is a good player. Steven Fogarty from Edina. A couple guys up North are pretty good. Max Everson from Edina is a good defenseman. There's a lot of solid players out there. It's really fun. They're all my buddies, so it's really fun to go against them.
McKeen's: You've played with or against all the Mr. Hockey Finalists at one point. For people who have not seen you play, what would you say are the strengths of your game and the style that you play?
LaBate: I'm a big centerman. I'm 6-foot-4. I try to use my body well. I'm good on the faceoff draws. I bring an offensive touch to my game. I can play tough, but I can also play a finesse game, too. I've good hands and I've got a good shot that I can get off well, and I feel like players can play well off of me.
McKeen's: That was pretty much my opinion of you after watching you in the Elite League, where you were able to get a little more space than tonight because the opponents weren't able to focus just on you so much. You definitely could fire some hard shots and worked very well with any open ice they gave you. Tonight, unfortunately, you'd have four guys converging on you immediately.
LaBate: Yeah. It's tough. But, you've just got to deal with it. Like I said, they're a well-coached team. They know what they're doing.
McKeen's: I should have asked this a bit earlier, but with the Mr. Hockey Finalists, how did that feel (to be named one of the ten)?
LaBate: It's awesome. There's been so many great players who've come through as Mr. Hockey Finalists. It's an honor just to be associated with the Mr. Hockey Award. So, hopefully I can keep playing good and possibly win it. I certainly hope so.
McKeen's: We've talked about the strengths of your game, on the flip side, and players are always looking to improve in every area, but what areas of your game are you focusing on improving the most?
LaBate: My strengths. Always working hard, eating a lot a more, trying to gain the strength to go with my tall frame. Stops and starts in the defensive zone. There's a lot of little, quick guys out there and I'm a bigger guy, so I've got to keep up with them. I feel like I do it well, but you can always improve on stuff. Then also, just the small things. You can always improve on stuff.
McKeen's: It is harder for you guys that are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, to fill your frame out at this young age and then you have these guys who are 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, who have reached their height and have been filling it out for two or three years. You're a tall power forward now, as you mentioned, but have you always been tall or was there a point when you really sprung up?
LaBate: I've always been kind of tall for my grade and for my birth year. But, I'd say in my freshman year I really hit my growth spurt. I grew probably five or six inches that year. That's when I took off and became a bigger player.
McKeen's: That's a good growth spurt. Your USHL rights are held by, if nothing's changed, by the Black Hawks. I read in the Elite League player profile guide that you made the team. So, what made you decide to stay here (Holy Angels) one more year as opposed to playing in the USHL during your draft year?
LaBate: To stay with my family, that's a big part of it. Also, just being with my buddies. I go to a catholic school that's very highly regarded for academics and sports. I really wanted to finish out my years there and have a good alumni to go back to. I feel like it's paid off. I feel like I'm having a good season with them and I'm loving it. I'm happy with my decision and I stick by it.
McKeen's: With the Elite League nowadays, you high school guys can get in that number of games so that you're not at such a disadvantage compared to the guys playing juniors playing 60 to 70 games. With it being your draft year, you're ranked reasonably highly, especially amongst Minnesota players. Do you ever pay attention to that sort of thing and, if so, what are your thoughts on it?
LaBate: It's always in the back of your mind. People talk about it and stuff. I try not to pay too much attention to that, I just try to go out and play. A lot of stuff can change, and hopefully I go up that list. Hopefully I can just keep rising, and I'm trying to do that.
McKeen's: There were some guys last year who made that same decision that you made, to stay, particularly Nick Bjugstad and Brock Nelson. It's turned out well for them so far, especially at the Draft. Have you paid attention to previous drafts?
LaBate: Oh, yeah.
McKeen's: With that, does it encourage you to see players like Nick and Brock achieve what they've achieved so far?
LaBate: Definitely. Those two guys are great players. Looking at their careers, they stayed, and so did Nick Leddy and Ryan McDonagh. So, that gave me a little more confidence in my decision to know that high school hockey is a good league and you can stay and still do just as well as going off to the USHL. That was a big influence, seeing those guys succeed.
McKeen's: With you, what's on tap for you next year? USHL? Direct to college? Not sure yet?
LaBate: Most of my offers are straight to college next year. I'm open, I guess, but my goal is to be a true freshman and succeed at that. So, a decision will be coming soon. I'm finalizing all of my college decisions.
McKeen's: Depending on where you're drafted, there could be some pressure to go the major junior route. Would you consider that at all?
LaBate: I think my rights are owned by, maybe Portland or something?
McKeen's: They pick up the rights to a lot of you Minnesota guys. They were active scouting the Elite League this past fall.
LaBate: Yeah. But, no, I want to play college hockey. Academics is very important to me and I like the college atmosphere, having the community and the whole school behind you and coming to the games stuff. I like the camaraderie. I want to play college hockey.
McKeen's: If I might ask, what are some of the programs that have been recruiting you the heaviest and is it down to a final few at this point?
LaBate: Yeah. Quite a few WCHA schools, then Maine, and also Michigan, and RPI, too. It's coming down to a tighter list, a smaller list. The decision will be coming soon. So, I'm excited.
McKeen's: What are you looking for in a school both academically and hockey wise?
LaBate: Coaching staff is very important to me. A good coaching staff, good fan support, good facilities for the school, and also for the hockey team, because that's where you're going to develop and hopefully play in the NHL. You need good facilities. Then also, a good group of guys. You don't want to have a team that you don't like. It's location, too. So, hopefully my family can come watch me, too. So, that's kind of the stuff I'm looking for.
McKeen's: Going back to the beginning of your hockey journey, or budding career we can call it, when did you first start playing hockey and how did you get that start?
LaBate: I started around three. I was on the ice at, like, one and a half on a sled being pulled around by my brother and my dad. But, my whole family has been in skating. My dad and my brother played hockey. I just kind of grew into it. I love it. I want to play for a long time?
McKeen's: At what levels did your dad and your brother play?
LaBate: High school. My brother plays club right now (at Minnesota-Duluth), and my dad was a really good wrestler, too. He was All-American at Arizona.
McKeen's: Very nice. To round things out, who were some of your favorite players growing up, or earlier in your youth perhaps I should say, and why, and who are some players today who you feel you're similar to?
LaBate: I've always really had a liking for Joe Thornton. He's a big guy and he's very skilled. Right now, I try to play my game off of David Backes. He's a big centerman with a lot of skill and he moves the puck well and can shoot the puck hard. He's a good leader, sticks up for his teammates, and he plays tough. So, I really like his style of play and I try to play my game like that.