Rabid Habs

The Strength To Believe – My Interview With Georges Laraque

Georges Laraque

From being a power forward in junior hockey (banking in 107 points and 661 penalty minutes) to becoming one of NHL’s most popular enforcers,  Georges Laraque was considered one of the most feared forwards for over a decade. But despite his reputation as a tough guy on the ice, Georges is the complete opposite when it comes to fighting. In fact, he doesn’t like it.

Unlike a lot of players you see partaking in scrums on the ice these days, Georges never wanted to fight. All the Quebec born right-winger wanted to do since he was a child was just play in the NHL, a dream that did come true for him on June 5th, 1995, when he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers.  But Georges just isn’t like any other NHL player; he is openly vegan, commits a lot of his time to local charity work, has even been a part of the Green Party of Canada as a Deputy Leader (2010-2013), and is the most openly honest guy you’ll ever come across. That’s what I like about Georges – he isn’t afraid to speak his mind which is why I enjoyed my Sunday afternoon (morning for him in Edmonton) phone call where we discussed his career, his reputation, his struggle with racism, his opinions on fighting, and his proudest moments in and outside the NHL.


 

Jessica-Lyn: I just want to start off by saying thank you for letting me chat with you because I’ve always been a huge fan of yours and it’s a real honour to actually interview you.

Georges Laraque: Oh, the pleasure’s mine.

JL: I guess my first question for you is what made you want to get into playing hockey?

GL: Well, I was born in Montreal and when you’re in Montreal, you know all the kids would play hockey on the street and everybody gets into hockey. And all my friends, when we played hockey at four or five years old, we all wanted to play in the NHL. It’s just what we did. Every day we played.

JL: Are there any players in particular that inspired you as well to get into professional hockey?

GL: No. I actually never watched hockey when I was a kid. I was hyperactive so I didn’t like watching TV, I just liked playing better. I was always out playing. And to be honest, I found it boring when there was an NHL game on TV because I’d rather play than just sitting around and watching it on television. Even today, I still don’t really watch a hockey game. If I watch one, it’s because I have no choice, like with my friends and stuff like that.

JL: So what was your mindset before and during a game, and did you have any pre-game rituals?

GL: I prayed before every game. That was pretty much the ritual that I had; I prayed because you know the job that I do is really hard and I would always pray not to get hurt and not to hurt somebody badly because of the job that I was doing. And like most players, I had a short nap (45 minutes) before every game. Also, one of the craziest things is that I’d always showed up four hours before a game. Most guys, it’s like two and a half to two hours, for me it was four hours because I always liked to meditate before the game and to do that, I wanted to be totally alone in the dressing room. That’s something that I did my entire career.

JL: You were drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1995 and played with them until 2006 when you signed with the Phoenix Coyotes. What was going through your mind when the Oilers decided not to resign you, despite you offering to take a salary cut if they kept you long-term?

GL: Well, for me (and I still live in Edmonton), I fell in love with the city and I wanted to stay there for my entire career. The only reason why they use salary cuts like that; I think it was just to show the fans that they still wanted me, but there are ways to do things where they know the players aren’t going to accept it, but the fans could say “Well, they offered you the contract and you just didn’t take it.”  So, the way they did it, they just tried to cut ways in a suitable way instead of saying “we really didn’t want him.” So, it was hard because I really didn’t want to leave, but at the same time you know, Wayne Gretzky called me in and he really wanted to sign me. When one of the greatest players calls you and he wants you to play for him, it was just hard to say no. It was an honour to have Wayne call me and say he wanted to have me on his team, so that’s why even though the Oilers didn’t resign me, I was fine with Phoenix.

JL: So, what did it feel like to score your first goal as a Coyote against Edmonton (October 26th, 2006)? Did it feel in a way that you were giving the Oilers some form of payback, or did it just feel like any other first goal?

GL: No, the thing is for me is the Oilers was always about the city and the fans and the love I had for the city, and I still live there. Even though I played for the Canadiens, I lived in Edmonton and had tons of friends on the team. For example, every time I played against them, I never wanted to fight anybody. Any team that I played with against Edmonton, I never wanted to fight anyone. Zack Stortini was there when I played against Edmonton, and he wasn’t the greatest fighter but I didn’t want to embarrass anybody in Edmonton because I love the city and I love the fans too much. I didn’t want to play that role and be the tough guy that is frustrated and wants everybody to die. It’s not in me, it wasn’t me. I always wished Edmonton and every team I was in to do good. I’m actually pretty sad that since 2006 and since I left, that Edmonton has been struggling to get into the playoffs. The fans have been patient and you look at the way things are going right now and it doesn’t like it’s going in the right direction.

JL: Being traded from the Oilers to the Coyotes and then to the Penguins in 2007; for any player it might seem a bit frustrating to be going from one team to another, not really knowing when they’ll settle with a team long-term. How did you feel during those times when you were traded?

GL: Well, I wasn’t traded from Edmonton to Phoenix. I was a free agent in Edmonton and when my contract was up, the Oilers offered me a pay cut so obviously I wasn’t going to stay, especially when you don’t know how long something’s going to be. You try to make as much as you can, and so I went to Phoenix but I was a free agent, so I wasn’t traded. What happened in Phoenix though, because Phoenix I was there half a year and it was terrible, it was like a country club and that must be the worst team in the league. So when the GM came to me and offered me a choice to go between Calgary and Pittsburgh, I had the choice at the trading deadline so I wanted to go to Pittsburgh to have a chance at winning the Cup and playing with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evengi] Malkin, and talking to Michel [Therrien] also, because he was the coach for Pittsburgh at the time. Knowing some of the guys that were there, I decided to go with Pittsburgh to have a chance to win the Cup.

JL: You’re still considered one of the most feared forwards in the league, and I know The Hockey News awarded you with the ‘Best Fighter’ award in 2003, even Michel Therrien believed that you were needed to protect young stars like Sidney Crosby. Because of this reputation that was built, did you ever feel like you never had enough time to show these teams that you were more than just a fighter?

GL: No, because of the teams I played on I’ve always played more than just the guy who fights for one or two minutes a game. Teams knew that I played more like a average of all ten minutes a game, where as the more traditional tough guy is one or two minutes a game. And actually, the most important stats of the playoffs most tough guys want. I played in the playoffs with every team I was on, so that showed that teams saw me more than just a guy that could only fight, who could be physical. I take pride of the fact that every team that I’ve been on, I’ve always had an important presence come playoff time. I have a few points in the playoffs so I showed that I was able to do a little bit more.

JL: I’ve seen so many of your fights on TV and online too, and I have to say that my favourite interaction between you and another NHL player would have to be between you and Tie Domi. I’m just curious, out of all the fights you’ve been through, which would you say is the most memorable to you and why?

GL: To be honest, about fighting, I don’t really know which one it is because I don’t watch them because it’s what I did but I didn’t like it. I did it because it was my job, so I never look at that and I was never proud of doing that so I really don’t know. People ask me that question all of the time, and I don’t know. I let the people decide which ones they think are the most memorable because they’re looking at them. And me, it’s just, it’s funny that I have such a good reputation doing it but I just figured if I’m going to do something, if I want to do it less, I might as well be good at it so then people would leave me alone about it. I didn’t want to do it. That’s the mindset I had but I never talk about it, I never rave about it, or look at it. I actually have no idea which one [is my favourite]. To me, no fights are memorable because I’m just happy I didn’t die in any of them, because it’s really dangerous and and I didn’t suffer any concussions and major injuries. I’ve never gotten hurt in any fights and that’s all I’m thankful about.

JL: Forgetting about the fighting, you have had a lot of offensive burst during you career (your hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings on February 21st 2000 for example). What would you say was the proudest moment for you when you played in the NHL?

GL: Well, the proudest moment for sure would have to be the hat trick because when you’re the tough guy, there are many great players that played in the NHL that have never gotten a hat trick, and when you’re a tough guy, you don’t even dream of scoring a hat trick. The goalie was there for all three goals and I didn’t even get involved in any fights in that game. It was a loaded game and it was crazy. I will never forget it. I’ve had many [moments] in minor hockey but in the NHL, it’s not the same. It stays with you forever and by far, the greatest moment ever because nobody could ever take it away from me. When I compare myself to other players, I don’t compare myself to Crosby or Malkin or whoever it may be, those guys can get a hat trick without sweating and it’s much easier for them. You compare yourself to other tough guys who did the same things that you did. You compare the stats, and it’s an accomplishment like that, it takes you in a different category; you want to be the best, so for me I always wanted to be the best of all the enforcers, I wanted to be the best, fighting wise or playing wise so stuff like that distinguishes us from one enforcer to another. That’s why I’m really proud of that because I know my 13 years of playing in the NHL, if I look at my points and everything that I’ve accomplished, I know that I was up there in terms of all the heavyweights that played the game.

JL: I know outside of the NHL, you’ve done a lot of things; you released your own book, you invested in three vegan restaurants, and you even joined the Green Party of Canada. I’m curious, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment outside of hockey?

GL: Probably being vegan. I turned vegan in 2009 after I saw a documentary that shows how bad it is, how animals suffer, how they get on our plate, how bad it is for our health, and how it’s bad for our environment. This is the thing I’m most proud about because when I saw that [documentary], I didn’t know how it was destroying the environment and the industry, how bad it was, and how the industry lies to us. So the fact that I changed my life after finally knowing this, I never felt healthier and I started doing many conferences about it. I do conferences all around the world about veganism and that’s why I got into raw vegan food, the restaurants and everything that I do now. Pretty much all of the businesses that I have, it’s all food oriented like health oriented because of my new vegan tab. The Green Party is the same thing because I turned vegan, I joined them. So, pretty much my whole life everything that I do now is based from the fact how in 2009 I became more environmentally oriented and food oriented. I try to make better ethnical decisions on anything, be an example, and I do lots of conferences about it.

 

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JL: When you signed a contract as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens (July 3rd, 2008), how did it feel to have one of the oldest franchises in sports want you on their roster?

GL: Well, when I was a free agent that year, I had about 16 teams, like I told you. Every time that I was a free agent, I had about 15 to 20 teams that I could go to. It was awesome to have that variety of choice and that year I was torn because I had a chance to go back to Edmonton and I had to pick between Edmonton and Montreal. The only reason I picked Montreal is not because of the history, it’s because my mom was begging me, for me to come back and play in my hometown. If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve went back to Edmonton to play because, if I would’ve went back there, it wasn’t just to play back where I was living but I would have had a job guaranteed. There are so many things that would have happened if I had stayed there, but for my mom I just, you know she stayed up late so much to watch the games and she never came to Western Canada because it’s so far away; she never got a chance to see me play live so I picked Montreal for her.

JL: I know you said you didn’t really watch hockey growing up, but did you happen to be a Montreal Canadiens fan at all and if not, have you ever had a favourite hockey team?

GL: No. To be honest, I would lie if I said I wasn’t a Montreal fan because I love Montreal. I actually didn’t have any [favourite] team. I knew Montreal was good because that’s what everybody talked about, but I didn’t care. I never even went to watch a game before and I never wanted to. I just liked to play so I was one of those kids that I didn’t have to watch it and stuff. It was boring. I was active and my parents got me into sports, so I was active. I never wanted to watch and I never watched TV, especially hockey. If I was at home, I would play hockey in the basement. That’s why I didn’t have a favourite team. I never had a team jersey on and I don’t remember even owning a Montreal hat when I was a kid. I never wore any hockey stuff at all. I wasn’t a fan of anything.

JL: That’s actually very different to hear because most people (hockey players) I’ve talked to, they’ve said that they grew up watching hockey, but yours is a lot different but actually a lot better than what most people say because you actually wanted to play the game and not just sit around and watch it so I think that’s really cool.

GL: Well, I fell in love with it playing it, and not watching it.

JL: One of the main reasons why Montreal wanted you was to add toughness to the team yet in 2010 (January 21st), they announced that they were going to buy out the remainder of your contract. Do you think that they didn’t have enough time to see you play at your best? And how did you feel when you found that out?

GL: Well, first of all when I got to Montreal, I went through bad luck because I suffered two herniated discs in my first year, so I only played 60 games in two years. It was terrible. I was always hurt, and I remember in training camp, my first practice at training camp when I got my first herniated disc; I went to the doctor and he said “yeah, you have a bulged disc and you need surgery”, and I knew with surgery that I would’ve been done. It’s a year and a half to two years off the shelf if you get back surgery. So, my choice was back surgery or cortisone pills, and I took cortisone pills but when you take pills like that, it masks from the pain but it was never good. I was never 100% healthy, so what happened is that became a huge distraction because we couldn’t tell the other teams the reason why I had the bad back and the other stuff and that I was taking the cortisone pills. Because if you tell the teams that, then they’re going to maybe try to hit me on the back so you try to hide your injury. It was a big distraction because the media was always going “What’s going on?” “He’s not playing.” “What’s going on? He’s not the same.” It was crazy.  It became a huge distraction.  It was only until after I was released that I explained to everyone what happened.  The year before I was in Montreal, I was in Pittsburgh, a team that has way more depth than Montreal, and I played every game other than the games where I was suspended, so why would I go to a team like Montreal and not want to play every game because I was unhealthy? But after I was released and explained to everyone what happened, people understood.  A lot of people did not know what was going on with me and it became a huge distraction to the team because people were wondering what’s going on and this and that.  The fact that I was hurting and the fact that I wasn’t playing any more, and when I got released it was like a release, and the fact that I had Jacques Martin [as a coach] and he did not like fighting, so not the fact that I was always hurt, but he did not want a fighter on his team.  Keep in mind putting those two things together, I was not useful to the team anymore because I was hurt so much and with my contract, they couldn’t trade me because when they wanted to trade someone else you had to disclose the injuries and what’s there so what they were going to get was a tough guy who had two herniated discs and that couldn’t play as hard. So for my health, it was the best thing that could have happened because after I got released, it took about a year of acupuncture and yoga and then my herniated discs restored the cells, and now it’s fine.  But it took about a year to get to that and you know if this had happened about a year or two after I got into the NHL I would have been set but this happened after 13 years. After 13 years, and that’s a long career, but injuries happen. Fortunately it happened in my hometown where I was, but you know when you’re a fighter that those things can happen and to me I had way more good than bad about it and what happened was out of everybody’s control;  it was nobody’s fault, and I was okay with it.

JL: Despite the injuries and despite Montreal buying out the remainder of your contract, did you enjoy your time with the team?

GL: Oh, of course I did. It was awesome, we made the playoffs and to play in the playoffs against the Boston Bruins when I was there even though we lost; that experience with the fans and everything was awesome. But again, my biggest contribution to the team since I was hurt so much, it’s in the community. There’s somebody for charity work, there’s somebody from the team that was assigned to me just for charity work because I was scheduled and I pretty much had stuff to do almost every day, charity wise so I was a big ambassador for the team. And to me it was important connecting with the fans and to show our appreciation for their support and to be out there in the community, so I did a lot of things in hospitals and schools and all over the place to try to have an impact and inspire kids.

JL: You announced your retirement the same year (August 2nd) because of your herniated discs. If you could go back to the NHL with no complications, would you choose to play another season with the Montreal Canadiens or any team at all? Or would you just leave everything the way it is?

GL: If I was healthy and with Michel [Therrien] being the coach, of course I would because I played for him before and Michel knows how to coach a tough guy and he likes toughness; Jacques Martin didn’t, but a guy like Michel can appreciate and likes toughness like when I played in Pittsburgh. I would have no problems playing with Montreal and I would be used way more than I was when Jacques was there and [I’d be] way more useful so yeah, I would have no problem playing in Montreal with the coach that they have now. Now, it would be fun.

JL: Again, I know you said you don’t watch hockey, but over the past few years have there been any Canadiens players that have stood out to you at all, even just by word of mouth?

GL: Well, obviously P.K. Subban you know stood out for sure. You know P.K., Max Pacioretty, Carey Price; those three guys with the contribution and things that they do, they’re the core of the team and now you look at Gally (Brendan Gallagher) and Alex Galchenyuk and those young guns that are coming out, it’s amazing. They’re not the biggest team, but so much hard work and so much courage and the way they play, so fast and tenacious, it’s amazing. I actually predicted before the [2013-14] season started that Montreal was going to finish first in the East. People thought I was on crack and that I was crazy, and now I’m glad that they’re doing so good because people are now like “Oh, shit!” If you look at the team on paper, who’s the number one center? You know? With any other team , they’d be a third line center. There’s no prominent center like other teams have, but they find ways to win. And obviously we know the goalie has a long ways to go with it, but it doesn’t matter, goalies are part of the team and they’re still first, so that’s amazing.

JL: Being a former Canadiens player, what advice would you give to some of the newer players that have joined the team this year?

GL: Play your heart out. Don’t cheat. People in Montreal, they know the hockey so well that if you play your hearts out, like Gallagher for example; if you never give up, you play all courage all out effort in every game, people will love you and they’ll support you. But if you don’t give your 100%, Montreal is such a hockey city that you cannot cheat. You can be embraced like [Francis] Boullion because of his work ethic, or you can be embraced like [Rene] Bourque was and you run them out of town. So when you’re here in this town, you got to be 100% committed to the team and the people will be coming to you.

JL: I know you had to deal with a lot of racism in hockey to the point where your dad actually pulled you out for a year when you were 12 but despite that, you still decided to play again because of how much you loved the sport. Seeing what players like P.K. Subban and Mark Fraser go through, and even bi-racial players like Jarome Ignila; what they go through with the fans and even players who are just out right ignorant, what advice would you give to them to handle those kinds of situations?

GL: The thing about that is,  we need minorities that play in the NHL because you become a role model for other minorities who want to play and who look up to you because obviously, hockey is a sport that doesn’t have many black players, and often when you look at a sport when you’re a kid, you look at that. And when I wanted to play, people would say hockey is not a sport for black people because there are no [black players] and parents, because there were none, often they don’t put their kids into hockey so for me when I was in junior hockey, I didn’t want to quit because I wanted to be a role model for the kids for when they looked at that sport. Because if I hadn’t chose that because there were no role models and everybody had that attitude, no minorities would play hockey, but now there are more and more than when I started. There were barely any and now you see more and more and they don’t look like aliens anymore. It just becomes more normal now and that’s why you will be faced sometimes with a bit of racism, not as much as in minor hockey, but it’s way better than it used to be. And it leaves those kids who want to play hockey with a few role models that played or play in the game too. They can inspire them to play because they can be like “He did it, he made it” and the fact that they hear the story of everyone that had to endure a bit of racism, they’re going to know that it inspired them.

JL: You know what, Georges? You’re such a really nice guy and it’s be so awesome interviewing you and you know such an honour speaking to you and I just have three final questions for you.

GL: Yeah, no problem. No problem.

JL: Your book labels you as “NHL’s unluckiest tough guy.” What makes you feel so unlucky?

GL: It’s funny because I wrote the book in French. In French the title is “La Force De Croire”, that means the power of believing. That would have been more my title in English, but my English publishers, they’re the ones that decided the title. They’re the ones that wanted to put that. I didn’t want that title because I don’t think I’m the unluckiest tough guy. They wrote that because, you know how I talk about I didn’t like fighting and that stuff? That’s why they came up with that idea because they said it was more Hollywood-like to sell. I’m not unlucky because I decided to do this. Even though I didn’t like it, it was my choice. Nobody put a gun on my temple and forced me to fight, so I’m not unlucky. I would have just put “The Power of Believing” because of me being in the NHL with parents being born [in] Haiti, it was  a million to one percent (in regards to being in the NHL), but because I believed it and I pushed through it and I never let nobody block my dreams, that’s why it happened so it was a more traditional book to show everybody that you could go about any obsticle, so it wasn’t my title.

JL: I know you predicted the Canadiens getting to the Eastern Conference finals. Do you have any predictions for them this year?

GL: I could totally see them going to the Stanley Cup finals, but the only thing is for now, the Western Conference is way too good. I don’t know what’s going on with the teams in the West and East, but the Western teams, it’s like [they’re on] another level. And yeah, the Canadiens can beat any team, but out of all of the big teams in the West, game in game out, the best out of seven, to beat Chicago, LA, St. Louis, best out of seven? I’m not sure. I just think that for now, the teams in the West are way too good. I think they’ll make it to the Stanley Cup finals this year, but I think the West are going to pull it off again.

JL: My final question for you is what’s next for you in the life of Georges Laraque?

GL: There’s so many things. You talked about the restaurants; I’m part owner, there’s a company that I’m going to shelter, I’m a spokesperson for funding for medical marijuana, I’m a public speaker, doing movies and TV, I do a regular show on the radio. Those are the only things that I do that for something next, there’s too much every day. And I’ve probably forgotten a dozen other things. I also play hockey from time to time for charity, and other NHL players also play (Hockey for Homeless). So, I do play hockey from time to time and I still do figure skating through Battle of the Blades; every year I do figure skating shows (involved in a campaign against bullying, in particular bullying against children who figure skate). I do lots of stuff for World Vision too, so it’s pretty busy. My days are pretty active and I try to do as much as I can to make a difference and to inspire others.


 

You can find Georges Laraque on Twitter (@GeorgesLaraque) or on his website: http://georgeslaraque.com/

Find Jessica-Lyn on Twitter: @strucxtures

4 Comments

  1. Fred

    November 26, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Great job Jess! Georges gave you a lot to work with. That’s the players we love the most, usually. 😉

  2. Jessica-Lyn Saunders

    November 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks, Fred! It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed all of the stories he told about the NHL. Those are the players I love the most: ones who don’t just give you a simple one liner. 🙂

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