I’m going to come right out and say it: I like Georges Laraque.
When I found out last year that the Canadiens had signed him as a free agent basically as an enforcer to intimidate opposing teams and get into fights, I was disappointed. I’m not a fan of fighting in hockey, and I’m not crazy about goons.
Laraque is still a goon. He’s a fighter, an enforcer, a guy who’s there more for his size and the strength of his fists than the accuracy of his slapshot. But, for better or for worse he lives by a strict, unwritten code that supposedly uses one-on-one fighting to self-regulate against cheap shots that would otherwise target small superstars. And he’s always smiling when he fights, which I found incredibly odd. He finds it amusing when some guy from the other team thinks he can take on Big Georges Laraque. There’s clearly a big difference between Laraque and someone like Chris Pronger or Todd Bertuzzi.
But what really impresses me about him is his conduct off the ice.
Take these pictures, for example. They were taken in June as the hockey world congregated at the Bell Centre for this year’s NHL entry draft. Outside the Bell Centre, a small ice rink was setup, and as kids played hockey inside, dozens of people got Laraque, the only Canadiens player present, to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
His recognition of his status as a media figure as much as he is a hockey player extends to other functions as well. He reaches out through his website, he gives regular media interviews in French and English (giving candid, human-sounding answers to questions instead of boilerplate clichés about working hard).
And, of course, there’s the whole animal thing. He’s gone vegan, and joined PETA. Tonight, he’s appearing at a fundraiser for a low-cost vet in the southwest borough.
He’s not perfect, of course, even in the ways people unrealistically expect athletes to be role models. The latest scandal (somewhat manufactured and ridiculous, perhaps) is his appearance in an unsurprisingly sexist TV ad (and associated making-of) for an alcoholic energy drink, forcing him to backtrack somewhat.
And, of course, little of this off-ice philanthropy enters into the minds of young fans who cheer for him while he’s beating an opponent into the ice.
They’re not idolizing him because he’s a champion of animal causes, or because he gives to charity, or because he’s a nice guy. They idolize him because he punches people.
Still, I like him. He’s trying to do good where it matters, and trying to have fun where it doesn’t.