|Nancy LaBaff has excelled in endeavor she’s undertaken in her life. Fortunately for SUNY Potsdam, athletics was one of those many challenges. From 1979-82, the goaltender won more hockey games for the Bears than any other, man or woman, in school history.|
Family was critical in LaBaff’s development, and it began with her mother Gertrude.
“She was a cancer survivor,” said LaBaff. “She would always push through things. She always would see the good in people. She always made me believe in me. She always said ‘my girl can do anything.’ And I really believed that. If I ever got down, she was always there to pick me up.”
LaBaff’s brothers also helped her build her confidence.
“I was accepted,” LaBaff said. “I had four brothers. They let me play sports and I was always part of their team no matter what. I had great brothers and great male role models. I never felt that I didn’t get the opportunities.”
When it came to sports, her father Ernie was a bit more old school, but LaBaff quickly won him over.
“He was like ‘no girl of mine is going to play hockey,'” said LaBaff. “He came to one game and he was like ‘that’s it. She’s unbelievable’. From there on he was just amazing.”
For LaBaff, like so many other athletes, hockey started at home.
“One of my brothers played hockey,” LaBaff said. “He created this board and I would stand there and let him shoot at me. It’s funny. I didn’t have all the equipment and he’d hit me in certain areas. I’d cry and run into the house, but then I’d always come back out. Back then, I used to love to watch the guys play because they didn’t really have women’s ice hockey like they did for high school boys.”
During her high school years, LaBaff played for the Stonettes, a girls team mostly made up of Potsdam players. After a game against Brockville, she was recruited to play for the Brockville Senior Angels. After four seasons with the Angels, she was headed to college and wasn’t thinking about continuing her hockey career. Fortunately for the Bears, then head coach Butler Sullivan recruited her for Potsdam.
“There was something about him (Butler) that made me at ease,” said LaBaff. “I was only 17 when I started college. He made me feel comfortable and offered the opportunity to be able to play there. I really believed that he believed in my skills. Taking that chance was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because of the friendships and everything about the program.”
LaBaff arrived on campus in the fall of 1978 and joined the team with three other freshmen. Like many other future Potsdam Hall of Famers, she never doubted her ability as she acclimated to the college game.
“I was never nervous because I knew my skill level,” said LaBaff. “I think one of the proudest moments (playing at Potsdam) was stepping on the ice and hearing the national anthem. When they called my name and I was out at center ice and they played the national anthem, I was like wow! This is the big leagues.”
LaBaff backstopped the Bears to a 10-6-2 record as a freshman, posting a 2.03 goals-against-average and five shutouts. One of her proudest memories was a 40-save shutout and upset of undefeated Canadian powerhouse Concordia University.
“We ended up winning 1-0,” LaBaff said. “My friend (Tracey Haggett) scored and I was getting peppered. I remember my father told me that the Concordia players were saying I don’t mind losing, but I hate to lose to a goalie.”
LaBaff capped her first season by claiming Most Valuable Player honors at the Huntingdon (Quebec) Postseason Tournament. She enjoyed everything about her Potsdam hockey experience, especially the chance to compete in her hometown.
“I had the greatest teammates,” said LaBaff. “We had so much fun together, but if we ever had issues they were always there for you. They were good role models and I became a role model as time went on as an assistant captain.”
LaBaff was excited to be in Potsdam’s classrooms as a student as well.
“There were certain professors I really loved and I could go and talk to them,” LaBaff said. “It’s a whole different level, college from high school. The whole maturity level. I remember the first time I took the human sexuality course and the way they were talking I was like ‘oh jeez, this is adult stuff.’ I made some good friends in classes. Back then you went to a lot of parties and had a lot of fun. But for the classes, certain ones I enjoyed that maybe I didn’t enjoy so much in high school. Professors made that difference.”
LaBaff backed stopped her Bears into her sophomore season, facing a schedule that included traditional Division I powers Clarkson, St. Lawrence, RPI, Cornell and New Hampshire. Featuring a new weapon in fellow hall of famer Kathy Lawler, LaBaff and Potsdam posted a 23-3 record.
LaBaff and company continued to roll during the 1980-81 campaign, finishing with a 20-6 mark. Among her notable victories were a 6-0 shutout of Vermont, an 11-0 whitewashing of Oswego, a 7-1 win over Clarkson and a 3-1 victory over SLU.
The goaltender was just as sharp during her senior year, posting a 15-3 record with a 1.52 G.A.A. and a .920 save percentage as Potsdam went 18-3 overall. She picked up an 11-0 shutout of Clarkson and 4-0 victory over Cornell along the way. LaBaff and teammates Lawler and Diane Johnson closed the season with selections to the Women’s Intercollegiate Hockey Association All-Star Game in Providence. LaBaff helped the North team hold a 4-1 lead and came out midway through the second. With the Bear goalie out of the way, the South rallied to forge a 5-5 tie.
LaBaff closed her college career with a 68-18-2 record for a .784 winning percentage to go with 17 shutouts. Kathy Lawler drew much of the attention the team received because she recorded over 100 points in each of her four seasons, but the Bears wouldn’t have won as much or decisively without LaBaff between the pipes. As Potsdam coach Brian Doran said in February 1982, “We won before Kathy Lawler came to Potsdam, but not before Nancy got here.”
LaBaff’s time at Potsdam concluded in May 1982 and looked to the New York Power Authority for a career. After starting as a groundskeeper at the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project when her father helped get her foot in the door, she quickly moved up.
“I really loved it there,” said LaBaff. “When I took that chance, I met a woman that worked in the operations department. There had never been a female operator working down in the dam. She said ‘Nance, I think this would be good for you.’ And I was like ‘Ok, let’s try this.'”
In 1986, she became a junior operator at the dam and later the first female operator there. Her passion for her work continued to propel her up the ranks and blaze trails.
“There was so much learning,” LaBaff said. “I was into the books. I was sort of nerdy like that so I’d read about the equipment. The men I worked with were unbelievable. I remember one guy who was like shift work was not for women. But you had to break that barrier, take that chance and once I had proved myself they were all on board with me. From there you would bid up to the next level. Then they changed the program to where you would go into an apprenticeship. But when the senior operator job came up, there were people ahead of me and they didn’t want it. I remember when I went up and put a bid in, they looked at me like are you sure you want this because the responsibility is huge. I said I didn’t start to not reach the top.”
LaBaff became a journeyman control room operator in 1991 and in 1998 she was named the NYPA’s first female senior operator ever. Her dedication to her profession earned her multiple Employee of the Quarter honors and in 1999 she was the Employee of the Year. She worked for the NYPA for 33 and half years and retired in 2015. She’s still an active member of her union, the Local 2032 IBEW.
LaBaff also met many challenges successfully in her personal life. She came out in the 1980’s, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. She was honored by the NYPA in 2018 during Pride Month for being a trailblazer.
“That was huge too back then, because when I came out AIDS was also out,” said LaBaff. “So it was very difficult. I knew I was going to lose people or people were going to pick on me. But if I couldn’t be me, then what is the sense of living? But then people change with that too. People were like, I’m just the same person. I just love somebody differently. Work was tough at times. I lost friends and even some relatives backed off on me. They just didn’t understand. Some people never change, but others do. One guy said to me ‘I just didn’t know anybody before. You changed me.’ They had this stereotype in their minds. But everybody came around, even at work. Everything was beautiful. I think I was so unhappy because I couldn’t be who I was, it was just a relief to come out.”
LaBaff has also fought cancer twice and won. In 2001, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but had beaten it by 2003. She found she had uterine cancer in 2015, but has been cancer free for three years.
“At first the news is stunning,” LaBaff said. “My first dealing with cancer, it was tough. I hadn’t been feeling good and I thought because I worked shift work that was playing a role. I never dreamed of cancer, but when it was, it really put the fear in me. I lost weight during the thyroid cancer and I was a little weak, but once I got a clean bill of health I pushed my body built it back.”
She credits her career for helping her get through cancer the first time because focusing on her job helped keep her mind off the disease. She’s also grateful for her coworkers.
“The guys were good to me,” said LaBaff. “They did help me out. If I got tired, I could go for a walk and they’d take over. I was fortunate I worked with such good men.”
To build her body back up after recovering, LaBaff’s brother, who’s a retired forest ranger, suggested taking up mountain hiking. She was skeptical at first, but after hike up DeBar Mountain in the Adirondacks she was hooked. She’s since become an 46er, someone who’s climbed the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks. LaBaff has now hiked all over the world.
“I love Europe,” said LaBaff. “I love France. One of the toughest tracks was called the GR 20 in Corsica. That was amazing. It’s the people you meet over there and it’s the meals. Some of the wildlife you see. I think doing the Camino de Santiago with my girlfriend after I retired was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been to Scotland and France a few times and Spain, all hiking in the Pyrenees. I love the Pyrenees. Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Believe it or not, I’m afraid of heights and exposure. I work through my fears.”
LaBaff’s trip to Mt. Rainier was delayed by her second cancer diagnosis.
“The second cancer was two months after my retirement,” LaBaff said. “It was a lot stronger cancer. For both cancers I had surgery and treatment. The second cancer I was in a state of shock and I took it hard. But then there’s that one point where I said, ‘you gotta get your s**t together.’ So I think because of all my climbing in the mountains, it really helped me heal better. And I had so much support with my cancers. It just makes a difference.”
LaBaff wants to serve as an example to those going through their own fight and let them know that there can be positive outcomes.
“I always share my story because I believe I’m going to help and inspire others. You can say ‘hey, you can have cancer, but still live.’ I’m not saying it was easy because it was damn hard. It’s something that’s always in the back of your mind. And you’re afraid, but you can’t let fear control what you do in life. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s one of the best things that happened to me because it pushed me in directions I didn’t think I would go. When you’re sitting at Hope Lodge and looking at everybody else, you’ve got to push through. If people only realized, there’s so much to life and you need to go out and live. That’s why my nickname now is “High on Life”. You need to go out and enjoy your life because you don’t know. Your life can change in a split second.”
LaBaff certainly lives by that philosophy. She goes all out to enjoy her life. Part of the enjoyment is her lifelong love of athletics. She played softball and golfed for years, though has moved on from those games. While she hasn’t played hockey since 2009, she’s been a goaltender in a Canadian ball hockey league for 15 years.
“In 2004 out of the blue I got a call from a friend, who I had played ice hockey with in Cornwall,” said LaBaff. “She said ‘Nance we need a goalie, would you like to play, but we need to know now.’ I said ok, I’d try and I just fell in love with it. I just love Canada and all the amazing friends over there. I played goal, but now I’ve started playing out. And I have to admit, my last two times in goal, I got a shutout. At 58.”
Confidence, hard work and talent have led to many impressive achievements, but it’s something else she takes satisfaction from.
“People always ask me, what do I consider successful,” LaBaff said. “For me, I don’t think it’s everything I’ve accomplished in life. It’s how I’ve made people feel. When people tell you, you inspire them, to me that’s successful because it means you’ve done something to help them.”
LaBaff greatly appreciates her experience at Potsdam and would recommend it to anyone for athletics and academics.
“I can’t believe if you think about it, what Potsdam State did for women’s sports,” LaBaff said. “They had the ice hockey program. That’s one thing I couldn’t believe. Way back then this college did that. They did a lot for women as far as I’m concerned. I think the professors were wonderful. It’s a great small community and a place where you can be a family.”
LaBaff will be inducted into the Bears Hall of Fame on Saturday night.