On the record and off, former Edmonton Oilers’ tough guy Georges Laraque has never been shy about saying what he thinks. On the bus. In the dressing room. These days, on the air as a radio host in Montreal. Georges has always been good for an unfiltered take, a laugh, a juicy quote or an ear-grabbing sound bite.
It’s no surprise, then, that Laraque had some ears burning Friday during a 20-minute segment he did on 630 CHED with Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer. What started as a discussion about Milan Lucic and the uneven first season he had with the Oilers evolved into Laraque taking a jab at media members and bloggers – specifically “analytics-based writers” — who, in BG’s opinion, underestimate the impact of having toughness in the line-up. That part of the conversation begins at the 11-minute mark.
That prompted David Staples over at the Cult of Hockey at the Edmonton Journal to write an item tagged “Shots Fired.” Listen to the interview for full context or read the Staples item, but here are the juicy snippets from Laraque.
“You said some of the people in the media they don’t like tough guys, and they say stuff, ‘They don’t like it, we don’t believe in this and that.’ This is the trend between people that know the game and people that don’t know the game. There’s many people in the media that cover the game that talk about hockey and stuff but they don’t know anything. And you read them and they want to make it look like they do, but they don’t.”
Laraque continued by pointing out Connor McDavid’s 100-point season, the improvement of the Oilers in the standings and the relative health of the team, citing the presence of big, tough players like Lucic and Patrick Maroon as a significant factor. “They should be talking about the results . . . we’re not even talking about fighting here. We’re talking about a presence that prevents guys from taking cheap shots because they know there would be retribution if they did so.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
Like I said, I always get a kick out of what Georges has to say, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything that comes out of his mouth. That holds true here. When it comes to the spectrum of people who observe and then talk or write about hockey, there’s plenty of diversity. You can’t broad-brush everybody who leans more toward the eyeball test, nor can you do likewise with those who lean more heavily on analytics.
In this case, though, I think there’s some truth in what Laraque said. Unless my eyes and ears have been deceiving me, the value of toughness has been disregarded or downplayed by many, not all, of those in the analytics crowd – in the face of what’s been said by those who play the game. Players say, “There’s value in having toughness in the line-up.” A lot of analytics guys say, “Prove it.” That in itself isn’t unfair. But what’s the measure in proving it? Results the next shift, the next period, the next game? Over the course of a season? That’s a fair debate and is ongoing.
There’s plenty of room in the game for intimidation – anybody who doesn’t believe that just isn’t paying attention. The days of dressing a four-minute-a-night hammer to provide it by dropping the gloves and bending noses are long gone. Having functional toughness, guys like Lucic, Maroon and Zack Kassian, who can play the game and play minutes makes a difference. We saw it with the Oilers this season. Intimidation can take many forms – a big hit, the willingness to stand up for one another and, yes, sometimes something as straightforward as a punch in the mouth.
There are no absolutes. Any old-schooler who says the threat of swift and sure fistic or physical retribution guarantees opponents won’t take cheap shots is talking through their backside. Some guys, now and then, are going to run around no matter what. Any numbers guy who says, “Hey, so-and-so got cheap-shotted and injured and their team had this-or-that tough guy, so that proves there’s little or no value in toughness” is doing likewise. Again, there are no absolutes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ve changed my view of fighting a fair amount over the last 10 years, but a lot of that change has been prompted by what we’ve learned about the long-term impact of concussions and multiple traumas to the brain. I’m living with the results of same and I’ve talked about that on Jason Gregor’s show and written about it on this site. That’s a whole other subject. The bottom line is fighting is on its way out, and has been for a long time, in the NHL.
In the end, what I know or think I know about the subject of toughness and intimidation as they pertain to what’s happening on the ice in the NHL today takes a backseat to what those directly involved in the game tell us. If a GM like Peter Chiarelli or a coach like Todd McLellan or a player says there’s value in it, I’ll take their word for it. We are all welcome to our opinions, of course, but to think your gut or your numbers trump that is folly.