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Saturday, Jun. 23, 2018
The resurgence of the Sudbury Spartans
by Randy Pascal

The return of the Sudbury Spartans to the Northern Football Conference in the spring of 2011, following a five year hiatus, was obviously greeted in local football quarters with hope.

Despite a less than stellar track record dating back to the mid 1990’s, a stretch which culminated with a leave of absence in 2006 for the storied local franchise, there was an air of optimism, if only for the fact that the Spartans were, at the very least, competing again.

Early success in 2011 gave way to a 2-6 record in the end, and a 28-6 playoff loss to the Sault Steelers, leaving no doubt that still was still plenty of work to be done to come anywhere close to restoring the glory days of semi-pro football in Sudbury.

Long-time defensive back turned coach Kim “Junior” Labrosse had been part of the good times. Joining the Spartans while still attending Ecole Secondaire Rayside-Balfour, the now 46 year old would suit up for NFC action, every summer from 1987 to 2011 in which the franchise competed, with the sole exception of 1995.

To this day, he recalls the moment he first stepped on the field with the “big boys”, at the urging of Rayside Barons coach and teacher, Jean Gauthier. “There were eight of us that went out, and Sid (Forster) had brought in CFL guys to work with us,” recalled Labrosse.

“That’s where I really fell in love with the game, with the team. I think it was a mix, vets that were in their thirties, and an influx of young talent.” Championship banners would come the way of the Spartans in 1987, 1991 and 1992, before the untimely passing of Forster in 1994 effectively spelled the beginning of the end.

A downward spiral began in earnest in 1997, concluding with numbers that were so thin as to force the team to the sidelines less than a decade later. “We were lucky to get two wins a year and there were a lot of changes in coaching,” said Labrosse. “Guys tried their best to keep it together, but a lot of the players had left.”

“When the team folded, I knew it had to be done. I just didn’t think it would take that long to come back.” The reality, even as interest in the Spartans was rekindled in 2011, was that the landscape had changed dramatically, from the era in which Labrosse and countless others devoted ten or more summers of their lives, to the new generation of adult athlete.

“I used to go to practice when my second child (Cyndle) was born, take her to practice in a stroller, wheel her over to a drill, do the drill and then wheel her over the next drill,” noted Labrosse. “For guys to play in our league or play any sport at the provincial level, into their adult years, the first and most important thing is that you have a wife, a girlfriend, who understands that football defines us as a person.”

“The entire family gives up the summer. It makes it easy for the guys to continue playing with that support.” On a more positive note, a feeder system in the form of the Sudbury Gladiators program simply did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. Young local talent would be exposed to some of the best competition in Ontario, a wonderful preparation ground for those who would seek out the challenge that is the NFC.

It was talent that Labrosse knew he must find a way to reach. “This cannot be an “old boys” club,” he noted. “It doesn’t matter if you have been here 20 years, I can’t play favourites. I will find you some time to show the coaching staff what you have.”

The stability he would bring to the table was beginning to bear fruit. “Going 4-4 in my first year and then 5-3 the second, we knew we were starting to take steps in the right direction.” Off the field, the “old” was also leading the charge towards something new.

“The re-involvement of Bill Costello was key,” said Labrosse. “He wants the guys to feel good, to feel welcomed, to feel like they are part of the team, part of something special.” To the credit of the man providing the on-field guidance, he has found a way to incorporate Generation X, Millenials, without losing touch of the rich heritage of the Spartans.

“I try and evolve with the game,” said Labrosse. “If you stop learning, you’re done as a coach.” And with news of the recent acquisition of the team by Sudbury Wolves’ owner Dario Zulich comes a feeling that the resurgence of the Spartans is only gaining steam.

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