Laraque’s last word: Life as NHL enforcer

September 8, 2009, 1:50 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Montreal Canadiens tough guy Georges Laraque will be a guest on Hockeycentral Tonight Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet Ontario & East), where he will talk with Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos about the difficulties of being an NHL enforcer. The following is a blog written by Laraque for sportsnet.ca and originally published in January, 2009.

Fighting is not just the toughest job in hockey, but in all professional sports. Fighting is not easy, not easy physically nor mentally. During a fight, you pretty much fight for your life because as you know, many things can happen and on top of that, you are being watched by millions of people. And whether or not someone watches your game live, your fight will end up on YouTube forever.

In fighting you risk many injuries; the broken nose is an obvious one, but a broken orbital bone is something else and the thing people have to realize is that there is a life after hockey. So while you do this job, you have to make sure you take care of yourself.
I don’t want to look like the Elephant Man when I retire if you know what I mean.

What might surprise some people is that the mental part of fighting can sometimes be tougher than the physical part. A lot of the time, fighting starts a couple days before the actual game. You look at the schedule and get really worked up because you have a game against a team that has a top tough guy and mentally that’s tough. You think about the guy, you watch his fight on YouTube, you try to tell yourself it’s going to be okay but it’s not. No one can ever understand this pressure unless you’re a fighter yourself.

I used to feel that way in my first couple years. I used to not be able to sleep before games and I would sweat in the afternoon. It was not a good feeling. Sometimes I was even praying that the other guy — or even me — would be scratched so the fight wouldn’t happen. It was like this for me for about three years, but after a while you gain a reputation, you do well and get confident, and things turn around.

Now I laugh about it and I’m not nervous at all. I just know how the other guy feels before, let’s say, facing me and this reassures me that it’s no big deal. My old coach, Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, used to even say that when I was fighting, my heart rate wouldn’t change. He couldn’t be more right about that. Now I smile and I’m really calm, but it takes a lot of years to get there, and a lot of wins to be that confident.

The way it all started for me is actually quite ironic considering the type of job I have today in the NHL. All through my youth I had to fight and defend myself because of racism, and now that I’m in the NHL, it’s kind of just natural for me. But don’t get me wrong — I would love to be a skilled guy, make $10 million a year and ask my team to get me a guy to defend me that makes 10 times less, but unfortunately I was not talented enough and will never be! lol!

I fight because it’s my job, not because I like it. How many fighters like fighting anyway? I’ve talked to many tough guys and I can’t even name you one. We do it because it’s our job; that’s it.

I never talk about fights; I never look at my fights or get revved up about it. I often wish my opponent good luck and always talk to the guy in the penalty box after the fight to ask him if he’s okay or say good job. I never fight mad and maybe that’s an advantage in a way because you’re more in control of what you’re doing. I also never wish for anyone to get hurt in a fight because I respect all my fellow brothers and when did winning a fight become not enough? You don’t need to embarrass the guy and if you want respect from your peers, there is a lot of stuff you have to do.

THE CODE

Which brings me to the next subject: The Code. The Code is unwritten — everyone knows it, but not everyone follows it, and those who don’t are not respected. When you retire, respect is all you have left, and you want people to say that you were honourable at all times. At least I do.

The Code says things like:

*** not fighting a guy at the end of his shift
*** not jumping guys to get a head start
*** never punch a guy when he’s down (that’s the most important thing for me; players — and referees — know I never do)
*** and, especially, don’t celebrate after a fight. You see that stuff a lot in junior hockey, but for guys who do it in the NHL, it’s embarrassing and shows no respect for the other guy. Remember that everything you do comes back to you; you do that, it will happen to you because everyone is watching and talking!

You have to have a strong character to be a fighter. By that I mean when you’re a tough guy, you’re always an easy target. When your team loses a few games and they have to make a change, they scratch the fighter. A lot of fighters skate in the warmups all the time just so the coaches can see if the other tough guy is playing. Otherwise you’re scratched. You fight for your team all season long but come playoff time, your season is done and that’s the toughest thing to take because playoff hockey is the best part of hockey.

One of the best stories that I will never forget is when the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1990 and the first guy Mark Messier gave the Cup to was Dave Brown, even though he hadn’t played one playoff game. But all season long Brown made sure guys like Mark had all the room they needed, and trust me they did. That was just another reason why Mark Messier will always be my all-time favourite player.

Another story about Dave Brown that I will never forget is during my first Oilers training camp when I was a rookie, I played my first exhibition game and Brown was facing me. All I could think about is when he broke Stu Grimson’s face and I was terrified. I looked down so much that I could see my goalie between my legs, lol! So I did one of the smartest things I have ever done — I fought some other guy they had so I can still be alive today!

I also remember my first two fights in the American Hockey League didn’t go so well. I lost to Rocky Thompson and Sasha Lakovic one after another. I was just coming out of the Quebec junior league with a big reputation, which just shows you a junior reputation doesn’t mean a thing. But since then I have fought legends like Tony Twist, Jim McKenzie, Stu Grimson, Rob Ray, Tie Domi, and the all-time best Bob Probert. Again, against those guys I was just hoping to come out alive! lol! Then my reputation was established. That’s also another reason why when an up-and-coming fighter asks a guy to fight to make a name for himself, you kind of have to agree because if guys didn’t do it to you, you wouldn’t have that respect. It has to be like a turning wheel.

FIGHTING HAS CHANGED

Fighting has changed a lot over the years. A lot of guys are lucky they weren’t in the league 15 years ago. In those days, everyone was tough, everyone fought, and everyone was held accountable. Now, there’s no policing, players are getting slashed in the face, guys are getting elbowed and hit in the head, and more and more guys are getting hit from behind.

Speaking of which, it’s a real joke now how guys are turning their back to checks. For a physical player, it makes the job harder because you always have to be ready to stop in case the player turns his back to you. It’s a joke how some players turn around at the last moment to draw a penalty. In the past, nobody turned and if you did, too bad. But hitting from behind wasn’t a problem then. Guys were always ready, so there’s simple way to fix it by taking away the instigator rule. Let’s do an experiment and take it out for a year and see how many fewer cheap shots we would see. Of course, there would be more fights but hey, isn’t fighting popular? Who are the most loved players of every team in general? Fighters! We want to grow the game; fighting would certainly help.

I remember back in the day, people would show up three hours before the game because they knew that Probert and Domi were going to get into a fight. Isn’t that excitement? Now times have changed. My theory was always that the fan who worked 9 to 5, who worked his ass off and got dirty at work, identified more with a fighter because just like them we don’t have it easy and have to get dirty too. Interesting theory, huh? And in blue-collar towns, it’s definitely the case!

Now the big question: do we need a heavyweight? Yes, and here’s tons of reasons why: The top team in the West is San Jose, leading the charge with Jody Shelley. They have a team to go to war with if you look at their lineup and also with all the skills they have. I think they skated quite freely out there. And the top team in the East is Boston, leading the charge with Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara. Those teams are not just doing great this year but are built for the physicality of the playoffs. We can talk about the Ducks that won the Cup and led the league in fighting. When you have a heavyweight on your team, that presence makes the other team accountable and could save your star player from getting hurt.

So many teams and many examples have happened in the past where teams had been suffering because they didn’t have a tough guy and if some of you are still not convinced and still think I don’t know what I’m talking about, ask the guys who sweat and play the game. Ask them how big of a difference they see when they play on a team that has a heavyweight compared to a team that does not have one. You’ll get your response there and that from quite elite players!

For example, we can talk about how last summer, all the tough guys were signed quite quickly and before any other player, other than the obvious nine or 10 megastars. Who is the first player Pittsburgh signed this summer? Eric Goddard, three-year contract, figure it out. As much as you need a fighter, a good one that can play is hard to find and the teams that have them won’t let them go, in general! lol! A sniper is easy to get: you wait for the trading deadline when pending unrestricted guys will be available and you take your pick. But at that time, all the tough guys are taken and not available, also probably because a lot of us are not making big money and are easy on the salary cap! lol!

For the fighter himself, well there are tons of different types of fighters and that’s normal considering the size of some of these guys. Some guys are 6-foot-8 and some guys weigh 275 pounds. I can’t complain too much since I’m 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, but for some other guys, it’s another story. So when you see a guy hanging on a bit more than others, that’s normal also; fighting toe-to-toe is exciting to watch but it’s not necessarily the best thing for you and will give you a short career when you fight a guy with a bigger reach. Guys need to get on the inside. Showing up is what’s important, not always the result.

FIGHTING IS POPULAR

A lot of people hate hockey but love the fights, so really a heavyweight also helps to sell the game. Fighting is so popular they made a fighting league in Quebec. lol! Even when you have a heavyweight who doesn’t play every game, it makes a difference with your team. Guys will respect the team and won’t do anything cheap, otherwise they know that even if the guy isn’t playing, he will the next game and you will have to account for your actions. The only bad thing about getting a guy who doesn’t play every game in the season is that he won’t play in the playoffs and since it’s more physical, they will miss that guy’s presence.

For big guys like Brash or Boogaard, if they get in a fight and don’t beat the guy, automatically people assume that they’re done. But people are just smarter about how they fight and sometimes a Riley Cote fighting a bigger guy, even if he loses he gives a bigger boost to his team because of his courage, because everyone always expects the bigger guy to win. That’s why showing up is the key; that you were there for your team is what matters.

There are lots of different types of tough guys. There are the ones who love to initiate and others who just get in there if they have to, and I’m one of those. When you’re younger and want to prove yourself you might start more stuff, but when you get older this stuff gets old and you don’t want to fight just for fun anymore. But we do if the team needs it or if, of course, the other teams are starting to take liberties. And also the tougher you are, the less you have to fight. Do you think you would ever see one of the toughest fighters in the NHL at the end of a season with 25 fights? No chance; teams respect you even more and leave you alone.

So if you’re a big fan of fighting and you have one of those guys, well, sorry buddy but your guy is just too tough so you won’t see many fights! lol! But hey, that’s good for your team. A lot of times it depends on who you are, anyway. The coach could tell his fighters to leave certain guys alone so they don’t change the momentum. Sometimes when you play on the road and fight a top guy, the crowd gets into it and that can really lift a team — momentum in a hockey game is everything. Smart coaches know how to use it! A coach will never tell you to fight someone — you should know your job and know when to do it. But they will tell you when NOT to fight, and sometimes that’s a smart decision. Trust me on that! lol!

WHO ARE THE TOUGHEST GUYS?

OK, so to finish (because I can really go on and on with this blog — I will have write a book when I retire about all this) but here’s the answer to the question people ask me all the time: Who are the toughest guys in the league? I’ll go by conference.

The toughest guy in the East is Donald Brashear, hands down. He’s the king and has been for years. Pound for pound the toughest guys are Riley Cote and Chris Neil.

And in the West, the toughest guy is Derek Boogaard and the toughest pound for pound is hands down Cam Janssen. When I’m mentioning pound-for-pound guys, I’ve always been impressed with those guys who weigh around 210 pounds and are fighting monsters and doing pretty well, winning their fair share of fights. Any close fight is a win for them since they’re giving inches and weight. Talking about pound-for-pound guys, Tie Domi was the ultimate pound-for-pound fighter in my time with great consideration to Darren Langdon. That guy was tough and didn’t care about the size of the other guy.

That’s how I see it and probably just like 90 per cent of all the tough guys, I don’t care about all those polls I read where people vote. And it’s not just because the rankings change when one of these guy loses a fight. (For example, put Boogaard against the same guy 10 times and see how many he wins!) If you really want to know who the toughest guys are, just ask the players who play the game. Ask the guys who do the job, who actually fight and know their stuff. Not some know-it-all couch potato guy, frustrated about life who just likes criticizing everything and especially tough guys.

One of the stupidest things is when you read about those guys commenting on other guys’ fights like it was the easiest thing in the world. For some people, a fight should be toe-to-toe, you each take turns punching the other guy in the face, but if you don’t and are too defensive, you’re a chicken, ha ha ha! There are 750 NHL players in the world, maybe about 40 tough guys. The toughest guys of any league (who can also play the game) and some people find ways to criticize them? Just comedy!

For me, I have over 120 NHL fights and when I think about that I am always surprised. This is not my personality. I like to laugh and joke around all the time, and take much more pleasure doing stuff in the community and helping kids than getting in hockey fights. I take more pleasure in scoring a goal then a big fight (which is obvious since fighting for me is much easier than scoring! lol!) But I will always be proud to say that I had a hat trick in the NHL. I have played 651 NHL regular-season games so far, but I take more pride in the 53 playoff games that I have played; for a tough guy to have played that many games in the post-season shows how much more than a one-dimensional player I became. For that I have to thank Ron Low, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish for making me a better player and giving me more ice time than most guys doing this job, because for some of my fellow brothers, ice time is a much bigger fight. But stay strong my brothers, they still need you guys!

Thank for reading my blogs. I hope you enjoyed them and they were all written by me with all my honesty. This is your new NHL! Happy New Year to everyone, I wish you all the best. God bless!

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