The focus hasn’t changed in more than a decade. Joseph LaBate, first and foremost, wants to play full time in the National Hockey League.
But if he never skates on NHL ice again he can grind out a living in the American Hockey League, hopefully win a title, stay involved in the game afterward, use his degree from the University of Wisconsin — he’s just one French class away — or continue to expand his real estate portfolio. Maybe all of those things.
Whatever happens, he’ll be OK.
That’s just not why he’s here.
After six full seasons in the AHL, the 28-year-old, 6-foot-4 forward landed with the Milwaukee Admirals for the season that begins at 6 p.m. Saturday against the Grand Rapids Griffins at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
“I think that’s why you see a guy like him change teams or go to a different organization is to get a fresh opportunity,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “If you look at the track record here in Milwaukee … there’s been Colin Blackwell, Jared Tinordi, Freddy (Gaudreau). All these guys that have come in got second chances in other places, and now they’re full-time NHLers again.
“We’ve converted three or four AHL contracts over my time here into NHL contracts. That’s very rare. I think people in his situation see that and think, hey, they do reward merit there, it’s not just words, so I’m going to get that opportunity.”
Joseph LaBate played at Wisconsin before starting professional hockey career
LaBate (pronounced lah-BAHT) took part in the 2011 NHL scouting combine as a senior at Academy of Holy Angels in suburban Minneapolis, was drafted by Vancouver in the fourth round and then followed through on his college commitment with four years at Wisconsin.
“At that age I wanted to play professional hockey, and getting drafted was just a steppingstone to that process,” said LaBate, who finished with 31 goals and 52 assists for 83 points in 150 games at Wisconsin.
“It’s a long process, and I’ve been through a lot.”
What LaBate didn’t exactly envision — because who as a high schooler would? — were three seasons in Utica, New York, and three in Belleville, Ontario. In 296 AHL games he has 99 points (47 goals, 52 assists) to go along with 471 penalty minutes.
His three NHL stints with Vancouver in 2016-17 totaled 13 games with no goals and no assists.
“Life’s unpredictable and you just roll with it,” LaBate said. “I’ve had a couple of injuries in my career that I’ve had to work through but I’ve always come out stronger.
“If I envisioned my career, I’m not sure I ever thought I’d be playing in those cool cities and stuff, but it’s super special. I’ve got to see a lot of really cool places, got to meet a lot of really special people in my pro career, so I’m really proud of it and super excited to be here.”
LaBate brings his hardworking style to the Milwaukee Admirals
Which brings him to Milwaukee, a blue-collar town with a hardworking team that won the regular-season title in 2020 when COVID-19 caused the league to end play early.
(An aside: It’s also just five hours from home, the value of which was driven home last season when LaBate was essentially trapped on the northern side of the U.S.-Canada border.)
“I play with an aggressive style, but I like to think I play a 200-foot game,” he said when asked to describe his game. “I do all the little things — I try to — and I try to be as consistent as possible. I take a lot of pride in that.
“I think I bring some leadership to this leadership group. That hardworking style they have here just matches really well with my game.”
Asked the same question, Taylor paid LaBate the ultimate compliment: “He might be the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen.
“Very aggressive. Plays the right way. But he doesn’t manage his energy. It’s all going to be laid out there, and when it runs out he’ll deal with it. He’s only got one speed. He’s fun to watch.”
Coincidentally, LaBate will play his home games in the same arena where he first attended an AHL game.
UW teammate Brendan Woods left school after their sophomore season to finish the year with the Charlotte Checkers, and his second game came against the Admirals in Milwaukee with some fellow Badgers in the seats. The two remain good friends, and LaBate expects the retired Woods will attend some of his games at the Arena.
Ten years after being drafted, LaBate further understands the odds he faces to make it in the NHL but also knows they can’t matter. Effort leads to success, success brings attention and attention brings opportunity. An opportunity is what he wants.
“It’s within reach,” LaBate said. “It’s up to me, up to timing, up to playing the right way.
“You just embrace the process. I love challenge, I love difficulty. It’s kind of my personality. I love to work hard. When you’re not in the NHL you make the most of it. … I just think about the day-to-day and just bringing my best self every day.”