Profile: Getting to Know Georges Laraque

For this former NHL heavyweight, it’s the battles off the ice that count

Profile: Getting to Know Georges Laraque

During his 12 years playing in the NHL, Georges Laraque built himself a reputation as one mean fighting machine-his notorious left hook was known to send helmets flying. So in 2008, when he finally joined his home team, the Montreal Canadiens, the man Sports Illustrated named the NHL’s top enforcer was expected to dish out more than a few hits.

Then it all went wrong. Laraque injured his back during his first season of training and found himself popping cortisone pills to cope with the pain of two herniated disks. Much to the dismay of his fans, he was rarely seen on the ice. Whether his injuries or seeming reluctance to fight were to blame, the sports media were yammering, “Has ‘LeRock’ gone soft?”

There wasn’t much time for explanations. On January 21, 2010, midway through his second season with the Habs, General Manager Bob Gainey cut Laraque loose, citing distractions to the group.

Laraque admits he was disappointed. Though, in hindsight, he says it was the best thing that could have happened to him: “At first I said I was going to play another year just because I wanted to finish on my own terms. But a lot of times, when you make a decision with your ego, it’s the wrong one. You have to decide with your heart. So when I calmed down, I said no, I’m going to retire and focus on other things.”

It hasn’t taken long for those “other things” to consume his life. In the last year, Laraque has been appointed a deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, has raised $2 million to rebuild the Grace Children’s Hospital in Haiti and has become a spokesman for a company called TerraSphere Systems, which builds eco-friendly indoor-farming equipment. He even returned to the ice for a stretch-as a figure skater.

So how did this former NHL enforcer make the leap from hockey player to businessman, activist and political leader? At first glance it would seem Laraque has completely reinvented himself. But a closer look reveals he had been heading in that direction all along.

The eldest son of Haitian immigrants, Laraque started playing shinny in 1980, when he was just four years old. But unlike most of the kids growing up in the small town of Tracy, Que., he hadn’t always aspired to play in the NHL. “Hockey isn’t my favourite sport,” says Laraque. “My dad was a professional soccer player in Haiti, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

But as an outsider living in a town where hockey was king, Laraque set out to prove himself on the ice. It was an uphill battle. “They called me all the names. The N-word-I felt like it was my name sometimes,” he says, recalling the year he couldn’t even play because none of the coaches would have a black kid on their hockey team.

Fortunately, the teasing and discrimination helped him rise to the challenge. “There was so much racism that I thought, When I make it, I will be a role model for all the kids who go through what I did,” he says.

When Laraque joined the Edmonton Oilers for the 1997-98 season, becoming one of the few black players in the NHL, he was quick to follow through on his plan to inspire community youth. During his eight seasons with the Oilers, Laraque visited more than 50 local schools to deliver motivational speeches or to read to students. He also became involved in countless local charities, including the Stollery Children’s Hospital, The Salvation Army and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, where he talked to kids about his decision to live alcohol-free and drug-free. “Fighting on the ice was so hard mentally that when I did other stuff, like meeting people, it made me smile because fans can see you as a human being-not as just a hockey player.”

Laraque captured the spotlight in other ways, too. During his years with the Oilers he joined an improve group called Die-Nasty and hosted five radio shows, including Summer Lovin’, a relationship-advice program that became one of Edmonton’s top talk shows in 2006. “It became so popular that I’d go into a grocery store and people would ask me about their sex lives and everything,” says Laraque. “I did it only for one summer because it got too big.”

When Laraque left Edmonton to play for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007, his absence was certainly felt. In his last four seasons with the Oilers, his work with kids won him the team’s community-service award each year. “What you do for a living doesn’t define you; it’s what you do off the ice,” says Laraque. “I can visit a kid in the hospital and make him smile even though he’s in pain. There’s no money in the world that can buy that.”

Around the time Laraque joined the Canadiens, his focus shifted from helping kids to becoming an advocate for animal rights. His revelatory moment came in the spring of 2008 while watching Earthlings, a documentary about the inhumane use of animals for food, fashion and medical research. “Ten minutes into it, I just cried,” says Laraque. “I felt so stupid. I didn’t know animals suffered. I knew nothing about how they were raised.”

Shocked and disgusted by what he’d seen, he instantly converted to veganism. Then, over the course of the next year, he narrated a French version of the film and began organizing screenings and conferences around Montreal to share his thoughts on food, health, animal ethics and the environment. “My whole life changed because of this one documentary,” says Laraque, who is now also a partner at Crudessence, an organic vegan restaurant with two locations in Montreal. Laraque’s dedication to animal welfare and the environment eventually caught the attention of Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party. “I didn’t know Georges from his career in the NHL,” says May, “but we were in contact with some of the Green Party members in Quebec who worked with him on some animal-rights issues.”

After Laraque publicly joined the party last February, May had a chance to meet him at various events. “He seemed like such a thoughtful and caring human being,” says May. “When Deputy Leader Jacques Rivard stepped down, we had an opening. So we met with Georges and decided
he would be a good choice.”

As one of the party’s two deputy leaders, Laraque won’t be staying behind closed doors drafting legislation. “First and foremost, my role is to encourage people to vote,” he says. “We live in a democratic country and if 41 percent of people don’t vote, it’s a tragedy and an embarrassment
to Canada.”

And while he’s eager to talk about environmental issues, debating policy isn’t one of his main interests; when it comes down to it, Laraque’s job is to help publicize the party.

“One of the things he can bring to us is a level of familiarity and support among people who don’t really care about politics,” says May. “He has a strong reputation with a lot of Canadians.”

Among the causes closest to Laraque’s heart is the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince’s Grace Children’s Hospital, which was destroyed by the earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people in Haiti in January 2010. Laraque is working with the NHL Players’ Association and World Vision Canada to provide help. “Our goal is $4 million so we can build a bigger, stronger facility and provide more services,” he says.

A year after the disaster, crews are still cleaning up the mess-by hand-so construction has yet to start. But Laraque has made it his mission to ensure it gets done. His devotion to the project motivated him to compete on the CBC-TV series Battle of the Blades. The reality program pairs retired hockey players with world-class figure skaters to compete for a $100,000 prize for their favourite charities.

In the month leading up to the show, Laraque and his partner, Anabelle Langlois, skated five hours a day, five days a week-a schedule he supplemented with dance classes and 90-minute hot-yoga sessions. Despite the rigorous training, Laraque and Langlois were voted off after the second episode. But Laraque walked away with $25,000 to put towards the hospital.

Last September, Laraque visited Haiti for the second time since the earthquake. He went with Nick Brusatore, the inventor and co-founder of TerraSphere. This company designs and builds “a hydroponic system that can grow millions of tones of vegetables without chemicals or manure-and it can run on alternative energy,” says Laraque. “It’s technology that could save the world.”

The two travelled to Haiti to explore the possibility of setting up one of these farms there-without putting existing farmers out of business. They also spent four days distributing locally grown food to people living in two relief camps. “There is still a lot of work to do,” says Laraque. “It’s going to take five to ten years to get the country rebuilt. But the people’s morale is up. They’re not feeling sorry for themselves; they’re finding ways to live.”

Given his relentless charitable work and his role in the Green Party, does Laraque have designs to run for office someday? “I really doubt it,” he says. “I’m too involved in too many different causes, and if you run, you have to quit everything you do and focus on one thing: to promote yourself and show that you’re better than the next guy.” He swipes his giant hand in the air, discarding the idea. “I want to do everything, I want to be everywhere. People say I do too much, but I don’t think I do enough.”

This article was originally titled “Georges Laraque is a Lover, Not a Fighter,” in the February 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!