For the casual hockey fan, the name Georges Laraque conjures up images of one of the true heavyweights in the NHL; a man that took on any challenger in his role as fighter in the league. Personally, I was a little intimidated calling one of the toughest men in the history of the NHL. However, when I reached Laraque by telephone for our interview, it became clear very quickly that when you speak with the man known as Big Georges, you see that there is much more to his story then how many fights he won or how many penalty minutes he accumulated during his career with the Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Montreal Canadiens. The nickname of Big Georges could easily be describing the size of his heart and his generous spirit.
While passionate about life, his charitable work, and his business ventures, Laraque is also engaging and very knowledgeable. He is working hard to raise awareness about several issues close to his heart and has become a role model for many young people; something he did not have himself when he was growing up – at least not in the world of hockey.
“I didn’t really have a favourite player growing up, there were no real role models for me,” Laraque said on the telephone from Montreal on his way to visit his good friend Georges St. Pierre.
“Actually, my inspiration and my role model growing up was Jackie Robinson. I went through a lot of racism when I was playing hockey and I read in his book that he dealt with a lot too. I looked up to him a lot in terms of my career, knowing what he went through and the fact I was going through a lot of the same stuff as him.”
Before breaking through baseball’s colour barrier, Robinson spent time in Laraque’s hometown of Montreal, playing for the Montreal Royals. In recent years, there has been a great deal of discussion about the media presence and the pressures of playing hockey in Montreal. I asked Laraque what some of the pros and cons were of playing for Les Canadiens.
“To me, there are no pros and cons because I loved it,” he answered. “I thought it was one of the greatest things in my career to end up in Montreal, my hometown – it was unreal. The only problem is that there are too many players that actually find cons to play there and therefore they do not want to go there. That’s why, when Montreal wants to get a guy, they have to overpay them otherwise people don’t want to go there because of the pressure.”
“You play a good game; it’s the best place in the world. You make a mistake and you’re done – you are the worst player ever. That’s a problem and that is why a lot of people don’t actually want to be there, but it is such an honour to put on that uniform, especially when you are born there.”
During his career, Laraque’s reputation preceded him. Known as a fighter and defender of his teammates, the 1995 second round draft selection (31st overall) of the Edmonton Oilers had hockey skills to go along with his fighting prowess. In 695 NHL games, he scored 53 goals and added 100 assists. While some hockey fans would call him an enforcer, a fighter or even a goon, he was able to contribute more to his team than just scoring a knockout in a fight.
“Well, whatever people want to call it – enforcer, goon, it doesn’t matter,” Laraque said honestly. “It is not something that I am proud of but it got me into the NHL and kept me in the league for 12 years. I worked really hard because I always wanted to be more than a one-dimensional tough guy. I knew that to do that, I had to prove to people that I could actually play. Every time my team made the playoffs I always played and I take a lot of pride in that.”
After he retired from hockey, many hockey analysts were surprised by Laraque’s involvement with Canada’s Green Party. While it is a lot of work, he is enjoying his experience in the world of politics and hopes to help make a difference in the world for future generations.
“Well, you know, the only people that were surprised by my involvement with the Green Party were the ones that were not following me and what I was already doing in my life,” said Laraque. “Two years ago when I became a vegan, I started doing conferences around Montreal about animal issues, about our health, eating meat and about the environment.”
“When I was doing those conferences, it would attract a lot of people that wanted to talk about the environment in Canada. When the Green Party heard I was doing that, they wondered if I was Green and they approached me and asked me if I wanted to become a member. I thought that would be a great way to promote the environment to Canadians and to help out, so I became a member. When Jacques Rivard gave up his position as Deputy Leader, they asked me if I wanted to take on the position. The environment is important for our future, for our grandkids. We are not the ones that are going to suffer from the environment right now, but our grandkids will! That is why we need to do all that we can to leave them a better environment for the future.”
As the Deputy Leader of the Green Party, could we see the former NHLer in the Canadian Parliament one day debating the Prime Minister?
“I am more of spokesperson with the Green Party,” Laraque explained. “I am not going to run (in an election) because I am too busy with all the projects that I am doing, but I can educate people about the environment and all the different things that they can do and also encourage young people to vote. A lot of people find politics boring, they do not understand it, and they think politicians are liars, but a lot of people identify themselves through me. So, the fact that I could encourage more people to vote, that’s why I was happy to help out the Party, to get more people to vote first and foremost.”
Laraque is also involved with several business ventures and one that is close to his heart is Crudessence, a vegan restaurant he began with his partners in Montreal. The response to Crudessence in Montreal has been tremendous and while it would be easy to expand the business, Laraque is aware of the importance of building a business slowly; making sure that the company stays true to its goal of serving fresh and delicious vegan food, as well as raising awareness of the benefits of a vegan diet.
“We are focusing on the Montreal area first,” Laraque explained. “Eventually we will open more in Montreal because it is such a big city. We have to make sure that the clientele and everybody in Montreal are taken care of really good before we actually go somewhere else. It is always important that locally we are really, really strong before we do that – it is a matter of time. We just opened the second one, and it is dangerous if all of a sudden you open ten, fifteen restaurants and then you forget about providing great service.”
Another company he is working with is Super-Glide, a manufacturer of synthetic ice surfaces. As many communities face budget cutbacks, the local outdoor rink is often one of the first cuts. With a Super-Glide rink, a one-time investment can have kids playing hockey all year, perhaps helping a young hockey player reach his goal of making it to the NHL one day.
“We sell about 100 a month,” Laraque said proudly. “We are the biggest synthetic ice company in the world and we are the best one. That’s why I joined Super-Glide because having been in the NHL, I knew I had to sell the best product. We just put a full size rink in Fort Chipewyan and we have tons of commercial centres where people are putting them in. I am selling them like crazy – it’s unbelievable.”
“It’s almost like real ice, it is a great business. It is also easier to learn to skate on synthetic ice because you do not slip like real ice, so you learn the mechanics better. Then, when you go out on real ice, you feel much more comfortable.”
Laraque recently wrote at his website that another company that he is involved with, TerraSphere Systems, was acquired by a larger company – Converted Organics. TerraSphere is a system of vertical farming, where food can be grown vertically indoors on a series of racks, leading to better use of space and lowering energy costs. One of the goals for TerraSphere Systems was to help impoverished countries like Haiti. With the sale to Converted Organics, Laraque is confident that plan will now move forward.
Of course, Haiti holds a special place for Laraque. It is where his parents were born and we are all aware of the terrible earthquakes that destroyed much of the infrastructure, devastating the country. As is often the case, the media were quick to report the early days of the disaster, much like the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand, but once the initial shock of the tragedy wears off and the real work needs to begin, the cameras and media attention disappears. Laraque has worked diligently to keep Haiti in the spotlight and with the help of World Vision and the NHLPA, money has been raised to rebuild the Grace Children’s Hospital in Haiti.
“Well, this shows the way that the media works,” said Laraque. “They work in a way to get ratings. Every day when you watch the news, they show images like this – shocking stuff to get the audience to watch it. What happens is, even though the coverage should stay there because it is much more important, people find it boring because it is old news so they do not want to talk about it. That’s the way that society is so they do not show it. It’s up to people like me, that can use their name to bring it back into the news, and that is what I do as much as I can. I use my name to put Haiti back in the news and that way people get educated and they realize that they need to help still. That is what I have to do, that’s my job.”
As always, my favourite part of the “Ask the Alumni” series is the opportunity for THW readers to be a part of my interview with NHL Alumni members. Here are your questions for Georges Laraque and the answers, straight from the Deputy Leader of Canada’s Green Party himself!
Steve in Boston MA: Does it disappoint you that you are better known for your fights than for all the great charity work that you do?
Georges Laraque: Well, I’m not sure – it depends where people know me from. I think that in Canada more people know me for my charity work than what I did in my fights. Here, more people know me for what I did off the ice and I always took more pride in myself because of that fact. I never really liked the image I had as a fighter because when you fight, you are not really an example to society, you are a piece of meat and you are an entertainer.
There is stuff in society that is much more important than hockey and that is why I always tried to show people that. You can do so much for people when you are a hockey player that normal people can’t.
Jeff in Hagersville, ON: Are you looking at this move into politics to help develop your diplomacy and confidence, to use it as a possible stepping-stone into coaching in the future?
Georges Laraque: Coaching – Not really. I spent many years in the NHL and that is pretty much your life. I wanted to do something else that was more constructive to society then being a coach. Obviously, being a coach is helpful to kids and stuff, you are directing them and helping them, but I can do things that are much better for the world then being involved in hockey again.
Robbie in Waterloo ON: Hi George – In the early days of your career, what skills did you find yourself working on in order to adjust to the higher calibre of hockey?
Georges Laraque: Actually, I was lucky because I was drafted by Edmonton. Back in those days there was no “trap” and they played as a fast skating, fast paced team; we were playing all four lines. So, I really had to work on my skating a lot because to play in Edmonton you couldn’t just be a fighter. You had to be able to play to be part of the four lines. I worked hard on my skating and I’m really lucky that I went to Edmonton because it depends on the team, not all of them work the same way with the heavyweights, so it was great to be there.
Ron in Kitchener ON: First, I’d like to say – Wow, what a fast left hand! It is my understanding that during the summer, Edmonton was making a push for you hard, to protect their young talent. Knowing that you live in Edmonton in the off-season, would this not of been a fitting way, or the perfect way to retire?
Georges Laraque: I actually almost did for this year (sign with the Oilers) I almost did, but because of my back, I had to stop playing. I have two herniated discs and when I was trying to make a comeback, it kind of came back and was bothering me again. I never did surgery, so I had to retire because it was too dangerous.
Renee in Ottawa ON: You became a vegan in 2009 and endorse better treatment of animals. Was there a particular event or circumstance that made you change your lifestyle?
Georges Laraque: It was a documentary that I saw called EARTHLINGS. It shows and explains how bad the meat industry is for our health, the environment, and the treatment of animals – the animals suffer when they end up in those places. After I saw that, right away I instantly became a vegan.
You can get everything that you need from a vegan diet and at my website I have a list of athletes that are vegan and were vegan, to show people that think you lose muscle mass and whatever, to totally prove that it is wrong and not true.
Angie in Washington DC: Haiti has been in a state of need since before the earthquake, had you been involved in working with Haiti prior to the earthquake?
Georges Laraque: No, it was only after the earthquake happened. My family is born there but before the earthquake, I was always interested in helping local charities, but nothing really in Haiti. To me, the best way to help a charity is to be involved physically yourself. It is one thing to help out people around the world or in another country, but when you are not there a lot of times you don’t always know where the money is going. I think we see that a lot in Haiti, in terms of what is going on with the money that is being raised. That’s why I have always helped charities that were local so that I could be there.
Helping a charity, it is not just giving money and that’s it. You need that presence and to be involved in some kind of way. After what happened obviously in Haiti, I was present and I went there to make sure the money was being spent the right way.
Jason in Montreal, QC: Do players of colour deal with racism from other players on the ice? Are there ever some comments from fans that cross the line?
Georges Laraque: Only when I was in minor hockey. In minor hockey I went through a lot of racism. In the NHL there was only one incident, but the rest was mostly when I was pretty young from parents and kids – stuff like that.
You know what is crazy about racism in hockey. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, you can go to the museum, there is the documentation that proves that 50 years before the NHL even started, black slaves were playing hockey. Fifty years before the NHL even started, black people were doing slapshots. In school, you learn that “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion is the first one that did the slapshot. So, before people start being racist and start thinking that hockey is a white man’s sport or whatever, look at your history! In Halifax, many years ago, you’ll see that black people invented hockey. Fifty years before the NHL, black slaves were playing hockey!
On behalf of myself and all of the contributors here at The Hockey Writers, a very special thank you to Georges Laraque for taking the time to be part of the “Ask the Alumni” series. It was a very enlightening conversation and extremely enjoyable too. Merci Georges!
To learn more about the NHL Alumni Association, the NHL Alumni Hockey Tour and all of their wonderful charitable work, visit their website: nhlalumni.net
The NHL Alumni Association is also on Twitter: @NHLAlumni
Georges Laraque with Adriane Carr – Brent Granby/Flickr
Georges as a Penguin: Dan4th/Flickr
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.