It’s been an emotional, disheartening week for the NHL community, with the gates thrown open and years of buried stories slowly coming to light.
In the wake of the allegations levelled against Flames head coach Bill Peters by former NHLer Akim Aliu, many have taken time to reflect on the state of the sport and share their experiences in hopes of shedding light on how deep the roots of discrimination spread within the game.
Georges Laraque, the 12-year NHL veteran whose career included stops in Edmonton, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Phoenix, joined Scott MacArthur, Mike Zigomanis and Ashley Docking on Sportsnet 590’s Lead Off on Wednesday to discuss his own tumultuous path to the big leagues.
The most difficult years were the earliest, said Laraque.
“In my minor hockey, obviously, when I was a kid, back then — we’re talking about 30 years ago — I experienced tons of racism coming from parents, from coaches, from everyone,” Laraque said. “But I was a kid, and it was different. As a kid, there’s nothing you can do. You’re not a man yet, you can’t defend yourself. You’re alone.”
The environment in which Laraque’s earliest hockey days took place was so toxic that the Montreal native’s own parents felt they couldn’t even watch him play.
“My parents didn’t support me in hockey because they hated that racism and they thought it was going to affect me,” he said. “There was so much racism when I was a kid that they refused to go to games because they were going to fight in the stands — so they said, ‘If you want to go, if you want to play, well you’re going to be on your own.’ … And when I was there alone, no parents, parents were shouting names at me, the N-word at me — so much that if you came to a game, you would think that the N-word was my name. It was insane.
“It was coming from coaches, from the other team. All my years, that’s what I had to fight through.”
Fight through he did, eventually making it to the QMJHL’s St. Jean Lynx, and moving to three other teams in the league — the Laval Titan Collège Français, Saint-Hyacinthe Laser and Granby Prédateurs — before his time in juniors was through. It was a stiff price to pay, says Laraque, but an unavoidable one.
“I just started thinking that this is what I have to go through to make it to the NHL. And the way to prove people wrong and to shut them up is to make it to the NHL, to show them that eventually, in spite of everything they said to me, I made it to the NHL.”
Laraque’s first hint of professional hockey came with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, before debuting with the Edmonton Oilers in November 1997, the beginning of an eight-year stint with the team. The road to get there wasn’t easy, but also, unfortunately, not a unique one.
“All of us that made it to the NHL had to endure all kinds of racist comments to be there. We know that,” Laraque said of the trials many black players face in pursuing their NHL dreams. “Back in the day it was harder, and more and more that you go on and on in the years, it’s getting better. But we all had to go through bad stuff. … The guys that made it to the NHL today, we all have thick skin and we endured stuff to play the sport that we love, to eventually be role models, knowing what it takes to be there and how hard it was.
“It takes courage, if you’re a minority, to play in the NHL, because we know it’s not easy.”