Here's what I wrote for The Canadian Press today, but there's certain things you just can't report, such as a feeling you get when talking to someone. And the feeling I got talking to the Habs today in Brossard was one of indifference. It wasn't relief, which suggests that perhaps Laraque wasn't quite as much of a distraction as Bob Gainey suggested. But it most definitely wasn't outrage, or sorrow, or shock or any of those things you might expect from players when one of their brothers in arms is told to go home and never come back.
When Gainey mentioned the word "distraction" without specifically getting into what those distractions were, it meant we had to go to the players. The initial response was always to try and avoid the question, but not one player flat out denied that Laraque had indeed become a distraction. Not one.
If what Gainey said about being a distraction weren't true, you would think at least one guy would come out and say it. But not a single one did.
Hal Gill suggested that Laraque tended to complain about his ice time, but I don't buy that as the sole reason for today's decision. For the team to send Laraque home and accept playing one man short for the rest of the season would take a distraction of monumental proportions, far greater than a player griping about playing time. Players bitch about their ice time constantly, so that can't be it.
My take is that Laraque was providing a bad example. He wasn't doing his job, plain and simple, and there had to be a consequence for that. Perhaps he wasn't deemed to be working hard enough in practice as well, and Gainey wanted to eliminate that influence from the team. Or maybe it was something far more serious than that. I don't know. What I do know is that there was something done or said that we will likely never know about which led to this day coming.
Really, this day should have come last summer when Gainey had the chance to buy out the final two years in Laraque's contract, a move that would have given the team an extra $1 million in cap space this season and next. I said it back in July, and today's events prove that would have been the best move.
“I’m responsible for the decision to bring Georges Laraque here," Gainey said. “I suppose today, for me, it’s a defeat because he didn’t turn out to be a player that could us the way I anticipated in the summer of 2008.”
If you read my article, I go into Laraque's strict adherence to the "code," something Gainey quickly dismissed as farce.
“I don’t have a copy of Georges’ code, I don’t know what it is,” Gainey said. “I think the code is that you’re here for your teammates. It’s not your code, it’s our code.”
But more importantly, in my eyes, is that his teammates also didn't understand what Laraque's interpretation of the "code" was.
Josh Gorges appeared reluctant to talk about it, but as a guy sporting a welt on his eye after having to fight Sean Avery in New York the other night, it didn't take too much coaxing to get him to discuss what Laraque could have done to be a more effective enforcer.
Gorges talked a lot about how difficult it was for Laraque to find a dance partner. He says that Laraque asked someone to fight every time he suited up, but most people simply declined the invitation.
“For a guy of his size and his stature, he can go running in there, but not too many guys are willing to drop the gloves with him," Gorges said. “Sometimes it’s a boost for the guys to see him go out there and stir something up when we’re in a bit of a lull or we’re not playing to what we’re capable of. But those things are very situational, and sometimes those things just don’t occur.”
When I asked him whether or not Laraque could have used other avenues to start a fight, such as what Cam Janssen did the other night by plowing through Carey Price, Gorges did not hesitate.
"That's one thing I can agree with," he said immediately. “Maybe there could have been a few more instances where you run around and try to stir something up yourself. I think at times from talking to him, he never wanted to put the team in jeopardy by taking an extra penalty. His intentions were good in that sense. But I think it’s OK to take a penalty like that from time to time to send a message, and the rest of us as a team have to bail him out and kill that penalty.”
Finally, someone said it.
I've always figured that Laraque overestimated his teammates and coaches intolerance of the odd instigator penalty here and there. Or a roughing penalty. Or an elbowing penalty. He continuously said he did not want to put his team in a hole by taking an instigator, and when you say that often enough, the rest of the league knows it.
The result? When you know the other team's enforcer will do nothing unless you agree to fight him, it essentially nullifies the intimidation factor of having Laraque in uniform. We saw a perfect example of that in New York, where the Rangers came out for the second period with every intention of roughing up the Canadiens knowing full well they likely would not face any retribution from Laraque.
When asked about it the next day, Laraque said there was nothing he could do about the Rangers intimidation tactics because he was never on the ice. But Jacques Martin did give him a shift after the fights, and Laraque did nothing. Honestly, was anyone surprised?
I wonder if Gainey believed the injury-riddled Laraque we saw last year was a blip on the radar, that the relatively effective one we saw in the playoffs was closer to the real thing? That's the only reason I can conceive of for Gainey not to have bought out Laraque when he could last summer.
Now we see just how costly that faith became.
But the one guy who comes out benefiting from this whole affair is Laraque himself. He gets to collect a paycheque to rest his battered body in the hopes of landing a free agent contract next summer once the Canadiens officially buy him out, unless they can somehow find a way to trade him.
Laraque said during his media scrum just outside the doors of the Habs practice facility that he will now be able to focus his efforts on fundraising for Haiti, his parents birthplace. Just two hours after he was finished speaking with reporters, the NHLPA sent out a press release announcing the establishment of the Hockey for Haiti project, which will benefit World Vision. The NHLPA Goals & Dreams fund will donate $100,000, an online auction of autographed memorabilia will be held on nhlpa.com starting Monday, and players will be asked to donate to the fund as well.
Here is the final paragraph of that press release: "The earthquake, the most devastating to hit in 200 years, has affected roughly three million men, women and children. World Vision is on the ground with 800 staff providing emergency relief to thousands of the survivors. World Vision is urging Canadians to remember that almost 40% per cent of the Haitian population is under the age of 14. To learn more about the entire Hockey for Haiti initiative, log-on to www.worldvision.ca/hockey on World Vision’s website."
I mention this because it is obviously a wonderful cause, but I also do so because of Laraque's statements to Darren Dreger early Thursday accusing the Canadiens of lacking class for doing this while he was dealing with the tragedy in his ancestral country. He backtracked from those comments, but the damage was done.
Just a week earlier, after having scored his first Canadiens goal against the Dallas Stars, Laraque was talking about how classy the Habs were for starting a fundraising drive that ultimately led to a donation of $157,000 to UNICEF - $57,000 from fans at the Bell Centre, and $100,000 from the Canadiens, a total that matched the donation from the NHL.
To bring up the tragedy in Haiti while discussing being cut from a professional hockey team, to me, was the real classless move here. I honestly felt silly hearing players discuss it today, because there is no way one discussion belongs with the other. On the one hand we have a millionaire hockey player who is supposed to make his living trying to knock people's heads off, on the other we have an unimaginable tragedy of epic proportions being thrust on a population that has had far more than its share of adversity. Good on Laraque for quickly realizing what he said was extremely inappropriate, but it was too late. He should have known better.
“I have nothing to complain about," Laraque said. "I feel privileged to play in the NHL, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years. I have no reason to be negative.”
I hope Laraque's fundraising efforts are successful and I think he is genuinely a good person who understands the social responsibility a public figure should have. But I also believe his initial, heat-of-the-moment comments gave us a little glimpse into his brain - and perhaps some more insight into why the Canadiens did what they did today: At the end of the day, perhaps the most important thing to Georges Laraque is ultimately Georges Laraque.