By any measure, 2019-20 was nothing short of a disaster for Kevin Labanc and the San Jose Sharks. One season after advancing to the Western Conference final, ‘Los Tiburones’ inexplicably cratered in the NHL standings, and the reward will be watching the Ottawa Senators pick a player No. 3 overall in the draft with their selection.
As for Labanc, after establishing himself as a go-to secondary scorer and a clutch playoff performer last season, he bet on himself and accommodated the Sharks as they tried to emerge from salary-cap hell, taking a one-year deal worth just $1 million, counting on having a big year and leveraging his arbitration rights into a long-term, big-money extension.
But as is the case with Labanc’s team, almost everything went wrong. His scoring dried up, and while it’s a much-maligned statistic, you have to scroll through to page 18 of NHL.com’s plus-minus stats to get to his minus-33 rating, which was tied for fifth-worst in the NHL.
In the short term at least, it doesn’t look as though he’ll be doing as his Twitter account suggests and going @Str8ToTheBanc.
So, yeah, the game of hockey can occasionally give you a kick in the pills with a steel-toed boot. To be sure, it tests your resolve at the best of times and, contrary to what some think, doesn’t owe anyone a darn thing. Labanc knows that as well as anyone.
Instead of signing him and having him turn pro after his last season of junior in 2015, the Sharks sent Labanc back as a 20-year-old overage player. When he did reach the NHL, he followed up a strong start to his rookie season by scoring one goal in his final 31 games. And in Game 5 of the Sharks’ 2019 first-round series against Vegas – you remember that one, right? – Labanc watched the third period from the bench after making a couple of key defensive mistakes.
But Labanc also knows there is so much good that can be extracted from the bad. Five nights after being benched, he scored a goal and added three assists in a four-minute span, all on the power play, as the Sharks completed one of the most dramatic comebacks in NHL playoff history.
And if the Sharks hadn’t sent him back to major junior in 2015-16, Labanc would never have led the OHL in scoring. More importantly, he would never have had the chance to get to know a remarkable man by the name of Scott Baker. (Or his daughter, but more on that later.) In fact, when the nadirs of the game creep in, all Labanc has to do is think of Baker, his former billet in Barrie, Ont., who has become his quasi-father/father-in-law, and he gains the perspective he needs in fairly quick order.
“What an awesome person,” said Labanc of Baker. “When you see what he overcame to be the man he is today, it really makes your down days seem pretty insignificant.”
The night of Oct. 2, 1982, held so much promise for Scott Baker, a Montreal native who grew up in Toronto. He was 21 and co-captain of the Kent State hockey team on a partial scholarship. He was majoring in phys-ed and had designs on becoming a teacher. Baker was particularly excited for what was about to be his junior year, in large part because he was going to have a chance to play on the Golden Flashes varsity team with his 19-year-old brother, Chris, who was joining the program as a freshman.
Baker had just finished having dinner that Saturday night with Jon Straffon, the team’s other co-captain, and Straffon’s girlfriend, Cynthia Pelligrino, who was the co-captain of the school’s gymnastics team. Baker doesn’t remember where they were headed after dinner, but at about 10:30 that night, they piled into Straffon’s 1968 Chrysler Newport, with Straffon and Pelligrino in the front seat and Baker in the back.
And it was that night that everything changed for Scott Baker. He always refers to that as the night he was hurt. Not paralyzed, not confined to a wheelchair, not had his entire world turned upside down. But hurt, just hurt. Because that’s the way Scott Baker is. “Yeah,” Baker said, “I don’t know why.”
According to the police report, Straffon’s car was making a left turn at an intersection near downtown Kent, Ohio, at the same time two other Kent students, both drunk, were drag racing in separate cars. The first car hit the back of Straffon’s car and sent it spinning. Baker, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle and hit by the second speeding car.
When everything came to a screeching and sickening halt, Baker was crushed in the wheel well of the second car. “Just absolutely mangled up,” he said. Straffon sustained a broken cheekbone, while Pelligrino had a separated shoulder and the drivers of the other two cars were uninjured. Baker was not as lucky, but depending upon your perspective, he was incredibly lucky.
Since that night, almost 38 years ago, Baker has been paralyzed from the waist down. The accident severed his spinal cord at the ninth and 10th thoracic vertebra, more commonly known as T-9 and T-10. His back was broken, and his right arm was so badly broken that his hand is at a 45-degree angle from his wrist. “We always called it ‘The Claw’,” joked Baker’s daughter, Kelly. “When we were little kids, he would pretend it was a crab and grab us with it. That was our normal.”
Baker was in hospital for several days in Kent, then was airlifted to St. Michael’s Hospital in his hometown of Toronto, and it was in the air ambulance that he first emerged from his coma. “I remember my dad fighting with the nurse or the doctor because they came in and said, ‘You’re paralyzed. You’re never going to walk again,’ ” Baker said. “I’m trying to take all this in and my dad is all upset, yelling at the nurse because she told me I was never going to walk again. It’s harder on the parents, it really is. I’m watching all this and I say to myself, ‘Yeah, you’re in a bad place, but you’ve got to move on.’ I think I took it a lot better than my parents did.”
So, Baker took his own advice and got on with his life.
The students driving the other cars were sentenced to six months in jail and $1,000 in court costs, but the judge reduced the punishment to $200 and a suspended sentence on the condition they attend DWI school and had no alcohol-related offenses for two years. Hey, it was the 1980s.
To make matters worse, neither of the other drivers had insurance, so Baker had to actually sue his co-captain and the driver of the car, Jon Straffon, because he was insured. Baker ended up with a small payout from the insurance company, no future as a hockey player and the realization that it’s almost impossible to be a gym teacher from a wheelchair. But a lot of other things aren’t impossible.
So he went back to Kent State and enrolled in finance and got a gig helping to coach the men’s hockey team that included his younger brother. And he met Ellen Whittaker, a fellow phys-ed student upon whom he had a crush when they were freshmen.
Baker would go to the Golden Flashes games and sit in the stands with a headset, communicating with the assistant coaches who were at ice level. One night at a game, Ellen was chosen to shoot a puck down the ice into the opposite net to win a promotional dinner at Pizza Hut. A native of nearby Canton, Ellen had never actually held a hockey stick before that and desperately asked Baker for a quick tutorial before she stepped on the ice. “I said to her, ‘If you get that in, we’re going on a date for the pizza after,’ ” Baker said. “And that’s how we kind of started our relationship.”
Being in a wheelchair did not prevent Baker from stealing Ellen’s heart. It actually didn’t prevent him from doing much of anything. It still doesn’t.
After Kent State, Baker resettled in Toronto, then later moved to Barrie for a job opportunity. He and Ellen set about building a life there and had three children. He always worked, never believing he was entitled to anything more than anyone else. At one point, he created a device so he could play golf. The scooter allowed him to be upright enough so that he could hit a golf ball. About 175 yards. With one hand.
He taught all three of his children, 27-year-old twins Joe and Kelly and 23-year-old Matt, how to golf. He coached Kelly in soccer and Matt in elite hockey, barking out drills from his wheelchair at center ice and having the players push him to different points in the rink.
He had a stand-up type of wheelchair so he could direct his teams from behind the bench. When his teams would go to tournaments, several parents would lift Baker into the team bus and put him in the front seat. One time he was coaching Matt’s Barrie Colts AAA team and the knee brace that held him in place in the stand-up chair gave away and he went tumbling out behind the bench, to the amusement of his players. Next season will be Matt’s senior year at Dartmouth, where he plays Div. I hockey. When Matt applied to Dartmouth, he wrote his admission letter about his father.
Five years ago, Kelly returned home from work one day to find nobody in the house. She thought that was odd, so she went outside to see if her father, then in his mid-50s, was in the back. The Bakers live on an old farmstead and the barn is set back about 500 yards from the house. It’s where they keep their 20-foot pontoon boat that they use in the summer at their cottage. “I look over to the barn, and I just the see the boat moving out of the barn,” Kelly said. “And I’m saying, ‘What the heck is going on? Nobody is here to move the boat. Why is it moving?’ So I drive over and I see my dad with a harness strapped to him, and he’s wheeling this massive pontoon boat out of the barn to put on his car to take to the cottage because he wants to go fishing. He’s so strong, it’s unbelievable.”
In more ways than one. It’s one thing to cope with a disability. It’s another to thrive. Kelly played soccer at the University of Guelph, which is about 100 miles from Barrie, and her father never missed a game, home or away. Many weekends during the hockey season, he and Ellen will travel to watch Matt play for Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., or Scott will drive eight hours to the games with his 86-year-old father, Peter. Scott has been a beer salesman, worked at a car dealership and most recently sells wheelchairs. “He goes through life as if nothing has happened. Nothing,” Kelly said. “To us, it’s completely normal. Our life is totally normal. There’s nothing abnormal about having a dad in a wheelchair.”
Part of Baker’s duties when he coached at Kent State was recruiting, something he continued to do after he settled in Barrie. It was there that he would often run into other junior and pro scouts and started to build a network.
In 1985, both he and his father were working for Molson Breweries, and Baker’s father found out the Montreal Canadiens were looking for a scout in the Barrie area. Baker got the job as a part-time scout and did that for 13 years, earning a Stanley Cup ring when the Canadiens won in 1993. He keeps it in the bathroom, of all places. It made for very good show-and-tell fodder for Baker’s children at school. “Everyone else is bringing in their hamster,” Matt said, “and I’m bringing in a Stanley Cup ring.”
Although Baker spent most of his time scouting midget players to give the Canadiens a book on young players who were still years away from being drafted, he did have significant input on some of their picks. He lobbied for the organization to choose defenseman Craig Rivet in 1992 and four years later was high on winger Jan Bulis, who had played for the Barrie Colts.
The Canadiens were set to take Bulis in the second round, but he was nabbed by the Washington Capitals at 43rd overall, one pick before the Canadiens’ selection. Baker was heartened when the Canadiens acquired Bulis, along with Richard Zednik, at the trade deadline in 2001 and Bulis gave them four fairly productive seasons.
If that wasn’t enough, Scott and Ellen began to take in Colts players as billets. So when Labanc was dispatched back to junior for 2015-16, he was assigned to live with them. And he had a monster year, leading the OHL in assists (88), points (127) and plus-minus (plus-60). He was named the league’s overage player of the year and finished second in the CHL’s scoring race to Conor Garland, who had one more point playing for Moncton in the QMJHL.
Labanc and Kelly, who is three years older, immediately hit it off, but Kelly spent most of that season in Australia. “The first night he showed up, we stayed up until five in the morning just sharing stories,” Kelly said. “We had no relationship at all at the beginning. We were just best friends, and then the friendship progressed, and we just started to fall in love with each other. We had our first date just as that season was about to end, and here we are.”
Kelly and Labanc now live together in San Jose, and she works in real estate. Labanc, meanwhile, feels like a part of the Baker family because that’s the way they made him feel right from the time he first went through their door. He signed his first NHL contract on Scott Baker’s kitchen table. One night, Labanc came home from a game and Scott had an entire scouting report prepared on him.
He tries not to be a scout with either Labanc or his son Matt these days, but, you know, old habits die hard. “Once a scout, always a scout,” Scott said. His scouting report on Labanc: Very good hockey sense, an excellent shot and power-play specialist. He’s a deceptive skater. He’s a little awkward to look at, and he’s not a smooth-looking skater, but he’s quick. And on Matt: An excellent skater, very good hockey sense. Plays bigger than his size and a very hard worker.
Scott Baker will turn 60 in December, but he has no plans to slow down. He intends to see as many of Matt’s games this season as he can, and when he’s not doing that, he’ll be at Colts games or watching the NHL on television.
In his business selling wheelchairs, he meets a lot of families facing the same devastation he and his parents did in 1982. “I’m the perfect guy to do it,” he said, “because I can tell the parents that I was in that spot. ‘You’ll get through it, you’ll be fine, and he’ll go on and get a life and have kids and a job.’ ”
And if that person is really determined, he or she might come close to accomplishing what Scott Baker has done.