Not quite the sweater of the Canadiens, but Georges Laraque, then 26, did cut a dashing figure in the Montreal All Blacks ball-hockey shirt in August 2003.
Marie-France Coallier, Gazette
Not true whatsoever that Georges Laraque will this coming season make his debut with Montreal. He did that five summers ago – with the Montreal All Blacks in the Canadian Ball Hockey Championship held in this city.
Laraque was the almost secret weapon of the All Blacks, who the early Sunday morning we met at the Montreal airport baggage carousel had jetted in from Edmonton and was waiting for his sticks to be delivered.
He then was a five-year member of the All Blacks, albeit a player whose attendance record was somewhat spotty – in fact, he hadn’t played a single game for the team that summer before he was drafted to help in the championship tournament.
The story follows on Laraque’s arrival to run around and chase a hard orange ball. (Sadly, we never did report his final statistics at the end of the tournament…)
This game merely fun for Laraque
Ball-hockey fever: Oilers enforcer uses tourney as tuneup
Published Tuesday, August 19, 2003
His day job earned him $1 million last season, so it’s safe to assume that Georges Laraque is the highest-paid player in this week’s Canadian ball-hockey championship.
But then, the hard-rock Edmonton Oilers forward is also the only NHL player facing off in the 26th annual event, which got under way last night and continues through Saturday at two Montreal arenas.
Laraque, a 26-year-old Montrealer, is the almost secret weapon of the Montreal All Blacks, one of three area teams among the tournament’s 10 clubs. Ten women’s teams, including Quebec’s Transport Simard Avalanche, will play for their own Canadian title.
Laraque was held off the scoresheet last night in a 5-3 All Blacks’ loss to the Edmonton Snipers.
He’s in action again at 8 tonight at St. Louis Arena against the provincial champion Montreal Black Knights – whose roster includes 14-game Canadiens alumnus Terry Ryan.
For many players here, this tournament is serious business, the crowning glory of their four-month season and even the chance to be scouted for Canada’s team for the 2005 world championships in Pittsburgh.
For Laraque, it’s a means to an end, a way to hone his conditioning and trim the final five pounds off his massive 6-foot-3, 250-pound physique for the Oilers training camp, which begins Sept. 10.
"I’m here to have fun, and I want to contribute because I’m coming in only now," he said. "But I don’t see this the same way these guys do. I’m hockeyed out by the summer. I’ve had camp, 82 games and playoffs."
Laraque doesn’t think his employer knows about this offseason pastime, but says his Oilers contract only bars him from extreme sports, say skydiving or Montreal jaywalking.
There is a difference, perhaps even two, between the NHL and ball-hockey, as Laraque learned early Sunday at Dorval: he had taken the red-eye from Edmonton, through Toronto, then waited a half-hour at the baggage claim for his dufflebag and had to go looking for his bundle of sticks. Nothing was being taken off a charter flight and sent on to the rink and his hotel.
Nor would the NHL likely want to hear about ball-hockey’s rather loose free-agency rules:
Laraque, who for five years has been a member of the All Blacks, has spent the summer in Edmonton and didn’t play a single regular-season game for his Montreal club.
But as someone registered with the Canadian Ball Hockey Association who plays only for fun, fitness and pride, he can compete for any club interested in his services.
So it was that he recently took a call of invitation from the Black Knights. The timing was good – he was coming to Montreal this week regardless, to empty a house he has sold in Blainville.
"I told the Black Knights: ‘Let me call my team and see if they want me,’ " Laraque said. "The All Blacks told me: ‘Well, we don’t think it’s fair for another guy to lose his spot,’ so I told them I’d play for the Knights.
"Just like that," he said, his grin spreading, "the All Blacks had room for me. But they also expect me to do a lot."
It’s with great fondness that Laraque remembers his early days in ball-hockey, playing with older kids.
"We played everywhere – on the streets, moving the nets when a car came by, or the driveway," he recalled. "We had our own games or games with other kids from the neighbourhood.
"This was how I got into the game, playing ball-hockey on Saturday mornings. That’s when you tell your dad you want to register in (ice) hockey."
Like thousands of Canadian youngsters, Laraque has waded into high snowbanks looking for the oven-burner-molded, banana-curved plastic blades jammed onto broken stick shafts he’d recycled from the rink.
"The blade would last for months, until it was a toothpick or flew off when you forgot to screw it onto the shaft," he said.
And he disliked the bouncing tennis ball, preferring the bullet-hard orange plastic ball that surely was invented by someone with a sadistic streak or who knows nothing about tender skin in the frigid Canadian winter.
"The orange ball was best," Laraque said, his face lighting up, "because it hurt when you hit someone with it."
They use a low-bounce ball at the national championships, a game that goes end-to-end on a regulation rink surface, its players wearing mandatory helmets and hockey gloves, and often shin pads. A floating blue line and two 20-minute stop-time periods are among the few differences from ice hockey.
While former NHLers Dino Ciccarelli and Lou Franceschetti have their names on the national trophy, ball-hockey has been spurned by others who have tried it because they don’t enjoy the endless running.
"Everything you do, you run," Laraque said. "You never glide, so nothing comes to you like it might on ice. There’s no intimidation, no fighting. And a penalty is almost a guaranteed goal, since the game is so wide-open. It’s impossible to defend."
There are 40,000 players nationwide in sanctioned leagues of the CBHA, which stresses safety and insures its members through registration fees.
The two-time defending national champion Montreal Red Lite is the men’s team to beat this week, despite having just lost the Quebec title to the Black Knights in a best-of-three series.
For many, if not Georges Laraque, they might as well be playing for the Stanley Cup.
"I’ll give everything I have, seeing how fired up these guys are," he said. "They’ve called me to talk about lines and systems. I’m thinking, ‘Man, it’s ball-hockey.’ It makes me laugh, but I also realize how great I have to play."
Georges Laraque, then with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, leans into an opponent as he stickhandles his way toward the net during the 2003 Canadian Ball Hockey Championship.
Marie-France Coallier, Gazette