Instead of being part of the Montreal Canadiens unlikely appearance in the Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers, TV facetime for Georges Laraque these days means getting tossed around a wrestling mat by mixed martial arts kingpin Georges St. Pierre.
While the Habs beat the Flyers 5-1 Thursday to cut Philadelphia’s series lead to 2-1, Laraque, told to pack his bags by Montreal GM Bob Gainey January 21, has had to make due with promoting a wrestling match with MMA star George St. Pierre on TSN. What could the 33-year-old Laraque, one of the NHL’s toughest men, have done to compel the Canadiens to send him home with full pay midway through the second season of a three-year contract worth $4.5 million? A contract the Habs will buy-out for two-thirds of the $1.5 million he’s owed next season.
When the Canadiens released him, Gainey characterized Laraque as unproductive, as being a distraction, saying, "I met with Georges Laraque and informed him he would not be continuing as part of our team. We felt our goals were more achievable to continue without him."
Asked about being relegated to sideshow status in a friendly bit of grappling with friend St. Pierre instead of battling the Flyers in primetime, Laraque says the answer lies with coach Jacques Martin, who took over behind the bench to start this season. In Laraque’s first exclusive interview since being released by the Canadiens, the former Edmonton Oilers tough guy gives his side of the story to Oilersnation.
So, Georges, what happened?
ACCORDING TO GEORGES
"First of all, the question you’re asking me is a question everybody around the league has been asking me," Laraque said. "Players, GMs, coaches, to my agent, to many people.
"The way that everything went down, in the eyes of many people, people assume I must have done something really bad. Like I must have fought with somebody or argued with someone.
"Me, I have never argued with a teammate. I have never fought with the coach or the GM. Never once they told me they were not happy with my play. I’ve always worked hard. When I didn’t play, I never complained and I did all my work.
"I never said one word about what was going on with the team. That’s the first thing I clarify with people. I was the player rep. I was one of the most popular players on the team. I was always happy and there was never a problem"
Laraque, drafted by the Oilers 31st in 1995, played parts of eight seasons with Edmonton before signing as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes before the 2006-07 season when GM Kevin Lowe declined to give him the no-trade clause he wanted.
Laraque made stops in Phoenix and Pittsburgh, then turned down an opportunity to return to Edmonton — the Oilers offered him a four-year deal worth $6 million when Daryl Katz took over as team owner — opting to take a three-year deal in his hometown with the Habs.
While Laraque had a disappointing 2008-09 season in Montreal with Guy Carbonneau and Gainey behind the bench, playing just 33 games because of back problems, he hoped for better things in his second campaign.
"The problem started when Jacques got hired last summer," Laraque said. "When Jacques got hired, Andre Roy, who used to play for him in Ottawa, told me I wouldn’t last three months.
"I asked him why and he said, ‘Jacques doesn’t like tough guys.’ When he said that, I started laughing. I said, ‘There’s no way you know it’s going to go like this.’ He said, ‘You’ll see. Three months.’
"When you look at Jacques, when he was in Ottawa, it’s true he had a talented team. He had Rob Ray and Andre Roy, but he would not play them against Toronto. They got roughed up all the time. Even though Ottawa was more talented, Toronto would beat them.
"Then Jacques went to Florida. He had Wade Belak and Steve Macintyre. He traded Belak to Nashville and he let MacIntyre go to Edmonton. After Jacques left, they (Florida) got MacIntyre back.
"I heard when he came to Montreal, he didn’t want to have a tough guy. But Gainey was the coach in the playoffs the previous year, as everybody remembers, and I did a good job against Boston and he played me lots. I assume he must have told him to wait, or whatever."
RED LIGHT SPECIAL
Even during his rise to becoming recognized as the NHL’s most feared fighter with the Oilers, Laraque was criticized for his lack of a mean streak, for failing to fully exploit his fistic prowess, for not punching first and asking questions later. He heard the same criticisms in Montreal.
"This season, everybody was asking me what was going on, why I didn’t want to fight and stuff like that," Laraque said. "That’s not true. If I didn’t want to fight, I wouldn’t have been in the NHL for 12 years.
"When stuff was happening on the ice, I would tell Jacques to put me out there. He didn’t want to. He wouldn’t let me go out and fight. Sometimes, I’d even ask him if I could take a bad penalty.
"I’m not going to criticize Jacques, but if you don’t like having a tough guy, you don’t necessarily know how to use them. I’ve played for Ron Low, Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe, Michel Therrien. All those guys knew how to use a tough guy.
"When I tapped one of those coaches, I didn’t get a ‘no.’ With Jacques, it would happen all the time. With MacT, that happened at the end, too, but not the first few years. In the beginning it wasn’t like that. I’d say to MacT, ‘Let’s go.’ He would laugh and put me out there."
Handcuffed, he says, by Martin, Laraque played just 28 games with the Habs this season before he was called in by Gainey and told his services would no longer be needed.
"People said I didn’t want to fight any more," Laraque said. "Sometimes I’d go to (assistant coach) Kirk Muller and say, ‘Kirk, I need to go out there. You’ve got to let me go out and do something.’ Kirk would talk to Jacques, but he was the coach and he made the decisions."
READY TO RUMBLE
"I was healthy this year," Laraque said. "My back, everything, was fine. The more the season went on, the less I was playing. It came to a point where I was playing four shifts a game. I never complained. I was just sitting on the bench, but I tried as hard as I could. "I’m not a four-shift-a-game player. I can play more than that. I take pride in the fact that every year in the playoffs, I’m one of the tough guys who can play. The people in Montreal never got to see that. The first year, I was always hurt. Only the playoffs against Boston saved my season.
"The second year, I played for a coach who didn’t want to have me. You know the media in Montreal. When I wasn’t playing, the media would ask a lot of questions. It was to the point that whenever there was a press conference, people were always asking him (Martin) why I wasn’t playing.
"He was getting sick of it, always having to answer why I wasn’t playing. It can be a distraction. You want to talk about the team, the play, whatever. You don’t want to talk about why you aren’t playing this guy. He didn’t like that." In one game against St. Louis last January. Laraque was a healthy scratch. Blues tough guy Cam Janssen was running roughshod over the Habs. That prompted TSN’s Pierre Maguire to question, in no uncertain terms, on the broadcast why Laraque wasn’t being used.
"He (Maguire) was between the benches. Jacques could hear him. After the game, all the media were asking why I wasn’t playing. I got released the next day."
WHO WANTS GEORGES?
When the Habs buy Laraque out this June, he’ll be free to shop his services, likely at a discounted rate. Laraque will get $1 million of his $1.5 million salary for 2010-11 from Montreal, meaning he could sign for the NHL minimum.
"I want to come back and show people who think I can’t do it any more that I can do the job," he said. "I look around the league and I see a lot of tough guys. I know I can still do the job better than most of them.
"I look forward to coming back. When I’m a free agent, I can go wherever I want. I will definitely be back. I’m only 33. I’m healthy. I’m hungry to play more than ever. I want to show those people who think I’m done that I’m not done."
The question for some fans is if a return to the Edmonton might be in the cards for Laraque. "I’m in the driver’s seat. I can play anywhere I want," he said. "Any option I have, I’m going to consider it, right? We’ll see."
For as badly as things went for Laraque in Montreal, he says he doesn’t regret his decision to sign there.
"That’s the way he (Martin) coached in Ottawa, in Florida, in Montreal," Laraque said. "I’m not going to take it personally. At the end of the day, there was way more good than bad. I want to thank the fans for all their support. Still, today, I get their support."
— Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.