Georges Laraque likes to have fun. He likes to sing on his radio show. He makes fun of himself and loves joking and chirping with his friends and hockey fans. He seemingly always has a smile on his face. But for many years, behind that larger-than-life smile was pain. Laraque was one of the most feared fighters in the NHL during his 13-year career, and while he never liked to fight, he accepted the role so he could play in the NHL. Early in his career, some of his motivation to fight came from his tough upbringing.
I’ve known Laraque for over 20 years, but in a recent interview, I learned more about him in one 15-minute segment than I ever had before.
He was much tougher off the ice than he ever was on it. He endured a lot of racism growing up, which sadly isn’t surprising as racism still exists in Canada. But how no one said anything to stop it is disappointing. However, what really grabbed my attention was when Laraque spoke about his childhood and specifically the relationship with his father.
We discussed highlights of his career, his recent battle with Covid-19 and much more in wide-ranging interview during a segment on my radio show called #StoryTime. I recommend listening to all of it here — you will laugh and cry — but his candor discussing his father and the physical abuse young Georges endured needs to be highlighted.
Physical abuse is often something we prefer not to talk about. It makes us uncomfortable, but if we don’t talk about it, then it will continue for every generation. Based on the amount of texts I received during the interview, it is clear physical abuse towards children is not as rare as we want to believe.
I applaud Laraque for having the courage to discuss his childhood so candidly.
Jason Gregor: Everybody has their own unique and different path to get the National Hockey League and everyone has a different story. Yours is unique because your parents really didn’t want you to play. You even had to walk or ride your bike to hockey with your bag, correct?
Georges Laraque: Yeah, I don’t have the story of the parents pushing you, making you skate, making you play hockey because they want to live the NHL through you. We know in Alberta it’s a problem some of the parents are too hard on their kids. You hear it in the stands, all of the parents are going nuts on their kids, but for me it was not like that.
My parents were born in Haiti and when they came to Montreal, they knew nothing about hockey, and they knew nothing about the winter. I was born in December. So, I love the winter, they don’t. I’m not a normal black guy. Normal black guys don’t like winters, and I do. I never wear winter jackets and since all of the kids in Montreal played hockey, I wanted to play hockey.
But the thing is, at home we never watched it because we never had cable and my parents didn’t know anything about hockey, so we never talked about hockey. And me, I wanted to play because all of the kids were doing organized hockey. But my dad, he can’t teach me. He doesn’t know hockey, he doesn’t know how to skate.
So, I had to do it all on my own. But the problem is that on top of the fact that they didn’t like the cold, they would go into the rink and freeze. Because when they went to the rink they wore two winter jackets. But the thing is that they don’t know what they tell me, what advice to tell me, and I was getting so much racial slurs from people from the stands that they were like, ‘Okay, we don’t know the sport, it’s too cold, and they’re yelling racial slurs at our son, our son is not playing hockey’
I told my parents, and I was six or seven years old, I was like, ‘No, I don’t care what they are saying, I’m going to play in the NHL.’
My dad didn’t even know what the NHL was, so he was like, ‘Well, you know what, if you want to go and play hockey, you’re going to have to go on your own.’
I think that when they said that, they thought that I was going to quit, but I was like ‘Fine,’ and I went on my own.
As a kid, in the winter, hockey bags on my shoulders, falling in the snow sometimes, I would go to the rink on my own because they wouldn’t take me. They said that I was going to quit. So it built my character and made me stronger. And I said I was going to show the people calling me racial slurs and I’m going to show my parents that I can still do it. It is crazy.
So I was pretty much alone during minor hockey, telling everyone that I’m going to be in the NHL while everybody said that I was on crack.
Gregor: Did any of your coaches, or any parents say to the opposing team or parents about their racial taunts?
Laraque: The reason my coaches weren’t is because guys on my team were calling me the N word. Guys on my team, guys on the opposing bench. They were singing songs, N word song, and the parents in the stands. It was all over the place, so what was he going to say? Everyone thought every year in minor hockey that I was just going to quit.
Ironically, when I was a kid, I was a goal scorer, I was scoring tons of goals every game, I was the fastest kid, I was the strongest kid, I was the kid that shot the hardest. I just don’t know what happened when puberty hit me and everything changed (laughs). But when I was a kid I never thought that I was going to fight, that I would be a fighter. I was scoring tons of goals. And it got people even more mad calling me names because I was the best player. It’s insane, these things just change later in terms of talent but in terms of when I was a kid, I loved it and it was so much easier and I was just scoring tons of goals and having tons of fun despite the fact that I was getting called all of those names.
Jason Strudwick: That’s a really strong message and I didn’t recognize it was that serious. How did you deal with that emotionally? You mentioned that it made you stronger, but at times it must have weakened your knees?
Laraque: Ok, so that’s a really good question. And I got really, really, lucky one year. First of all, every time I would go home at night, I would cry. But when I would cry, I couldn’t show my parents. Because if they saw me crying, they would force me to quit.
So, I had to act like this was not hurting me because they were afraid of my development if that stuff was hurting me and I would go through hating this. So I would always act like I was fine and nothing was going on.
But when I was eight or nine years old, I came across the autobiography of Jackie Robinson. It’s an autobiography that is done for kids, with his image on it and when I read how Jackie had become the first black player to play baseball and how he had to overcome racial slurs and how bad that it was. And when I read that, in hockey, there was no black guys when I was a kid, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s it, I’m going to be like the Jackie Robinson of hockey.’ And whatever he went through is normal and I have to go through the same thing.
So, I kind of accepted it in the way that Jackie went through this, I have to go through the same path. And then I had another dream, just so my dream was even harder, it was not just to make it in the NHL, but it was also to have my own autobiography like Jackie Robinson. Which I also did. But that book helped me out a lot because it helped me to realize that you know what, your dream is big just like Jackie’s dream was big but to go big there is obstacles and I’ve got to shatter them exactly like he did, and that’s what I did.
Gregor: You and I have known each other for over 20 years now, but I didn’t know until recently the relationship with your father was very strained because of your childhood. Your father physically abused you growing up. When were you able to forgive him?
Laraque: Well you know, just so that people understand, my dad was born in Haiti. And like most immigrants who are born far from Canada, there is no PG rule here where if you beat your kids, the government is going to come and get them. The way that he was raised he was beat, he was beat with the belt. And the way that we were raised, it was with the belt. And when I talk about raised with the belt that means that if I did something wrong we got hit with the belt. If you talk in school and the teacher writes a note to my parents that I talked in school, then I get 50 belts when I get home. It was how I was raised, like a soldier, I couldn’t do anything. If I went to my dad’s friends place and I sat down and I said something that my dad thought was not adequate, he would beat me. He would beat me in front of my friends, other people. All of my friends were afraid of my dad when we were kids.
So, the way that I was raised it made me tough because at hockey I was being called the N word everywhere that I went and inside of the home I was being beat by him. I was pretty much alone and it was hard. So, when you grow through that and you don’t have support through hockey sometimes when I look at my life I can’t believe that I didn’t become crazy, that I didn’t go nuts. To me it was the biggest hurdle because everything that I’ve been through I would have had all of the reasons to join gangs one day or be frustrated. But it’s just my character and my drive to be good in hockey grew so strong that when I was getting beat, it was a distraction.
And when it happens, when you have a distraction, me the way that I cope with it, I push it to the side. So, for years I pretended in my head that I didn’t have a dad, that he was dead. Some of the people would ask me, and I would say that he was dead. It is easier to do that when you start playing hockey when you are younger. But when you get older you start to realize that the way that he was, was not his fault. The way that he was brought up and he didn’t know anything better. And obviously any time that I saw father and kids relationship it always hurt me because I didn’t have that.
So what I did, I went to counseling to be able to overcome that because I have to. I knew I had to forgive him. It was heavy what I had in my mind, all of this, thinking about the time and the biggest regret that I would have had was that I don’t forgive him and he passes away. Then you live with regret. So it took me four years of therapy to be able to overcome it. I have no shame to admit it, as much as people could think because I was the tough guy that I was invincible, I was not.
That to me was a big weakness because if you just imagine my first couple of years of when I fought in the NHL to be able to fight because it was not in my character to be able to fight because I never liked it, I would see the opponent as my dad. How crazy is that? That thought was wrapped up in the beginning of my career, that’s when you know that there is a problem in your relationship when you think like that.
So after a couple of years of counseling, I was so happy that I was able to unblock a lot of stuff that was bothering me. So now, I see him, I talk to him, forgot about the past and I try to enjoy as much time as I can with him before he leaves us. He has plenty of time to go. He still has his own issues, but at least my heart, and inside of me I feel much better that I was able to fix that relationship.
Gregor: That’s incredible, it’s inspiring. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed at all that you wanted to heal and went to counselling for four years. It is inspiring.
Laraque: Thank you, thank you.
Gregor: As you got older and grew did you ever defend yourself to your father or did he just stop hitting you once you got big enough to handle him?
Laraque: I was 15 years old, I will never forget it. I was 15 years old and I was playing Midget AAA and my dad, he had a girlfriend back then because my parents had divorced, and every time he went to his girlfriend, I would go out to see my friends. And then one day my dad tricked me, he said he was going to his girlfriend’s but then he came back. And when he came back, well, I wasn’t there. And I didn’t have a cell phone back then. So, I got back at midnight, super late. I saw the light up and I was like, ‘Shit. My dad is waiting for me, so I’m going to get it.’
So I walked in the house and have to climb the stairs and when I’m going up the stairs my dad threw a chair in my face. If you look at my face closely, my lip was cut up. Because l didn’t have stitches, you can see the mark from it. He threw the chair at my face and I brought it up the stairs and he cut my face and I was bleeding. And when I went up my dad was facing me and he started punching me, punching me like everywhere. I didn’t cry, I didn’t flinch. By the way, I stopped crying at a really young age because I was so used to getting beat up, I had no more emotion I didn’t cry, I have no feeling, I have nothing.
So, he was punching me and I just kept looking him in the face. I didn’t flinch, I didn’t move. I was already much bigger than him, and I just looked at him in the eye. When I looked at him in the eye, he looked at me, and he braced as if to fight. He’s like ‘Do you want to fight me, do you want to do this?’
And I looked at him and I said ‘The only reason that I’m not fighting you is because you’re my dad. But if I wanted to, I could kill you right now.’
That was the last time that he touched me. I was 15 years old when this happened, and he never touched me ever again after that. I remember that like it was yesterday, and I know when people read this they will think it’s terrible, and it is terrible, because I have kids. I would never ever make them feel like that, or touch them physically, not even close, or ever put a hand on a kid, but that’s how I was raised, and to me, my biggest accomplishment in life is not making it into the NHL, it’s the fact that with everything that I’ve been through — battling racism and the way I was raised — that I didn’t become crazy.
Thank you Georges, for sharing your story. I’m in awe of your courage and strength to not only endure the abuse and racism, but to rise above it and reach your goals.
If you read this and have a similar story to Laraque, reach out for help. Talk about it. You owe it to yourself to feel better. And if you are struggling and feeling frustrated now more than ever due to the uncertainty in our lives due to Covid-19, please don’t take it out on your children or spouse. Talk to someone. If you need to vent reach out to me at [email protected] And Georges said if you need advice on how to start the healing process you can email me and I will forward your email to him and he will reach out to you. All emails will be confidential.
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