The Penguins' Georges Laraque gets tied up with the New York Rangers' Fredrik Sjostrom in a playoff game.
When it comes to helping community groups, the Penguins' strongman says, "there are no bad charities."
By Daniel Malloy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For Mike Liptak, the allure of Georges Laraque is easily explained.
"He's like a linebacker on the ice," Mr. Liptak said.
"Hockey's such a physical game, you want to see someone who's going to drop the gloves and fight, instead of just push and shove in front of the goal."
Mr. Liptak and his friend Tom Korpar, both 20 and from Irwin, sported matching No. 27 Laraque shirts as they searched for seats near the television screen in front of Mellon Arena Wednesday night for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final.
Immortalized on Web sites like hockeyfights.com, Mr. Laraque is known primarily for his ability and willingness to engage in fisticuffs on the ice.
The 6-foot-3, 243-pound forward registered only four goals and nine assists in the regular season -- and has been scratched for the past two games to make way for veteran Gary Roberts -- but he nonetheless is a fan favorite for his powerful left hook. His 141 penalty minutes, a good chunk of which were five-minute fighting majors, put him in the NHL's top 20 penalty-box dwellers this year.
Away from the ice, though, the ferocity disappears, replaced by an aggressive philanthropic spirit.
Mr. Laraque doesn't turn down a request for his time -- "There are no bad charities," he says -- and spends about four days a week during the season working in the community, mostly with children.
"A lot of athletes will talk about doing good things, a lot of them do good things, but Georges takes that to an entirely different level," said Cliff Benson, who has collaborated with Mr. Laraque on various charitable initiatives around town.
"He makes that a purpose in his life. That makes him different from most."
Mr. Laraque often goes beyond what groups ask of him, like the time he received a package in the mail the day of the Penguins' first game of the postseason.
It was from Catherine Marmol, a fifth-grade teacher at Hatfield Elementary School in Uniontown, who had contacted Mr. Laraque after hearing television broadcasters tell of his good deeds.
She wanted to involve him in a class project with Flat Stanley, a paper cutout man sent out for adventures to be documented with a camera and a journal.
At practice the next day, Mr. Laraque introduced the team to Flat Stanley, posing him with teammates -- including stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- and in different places around Mellon Arena, from the ice to the weight room.
Instead of mailing the package back, as Ms. Marmol had requested, Mr. Laraque then hopped in his truck and drove to Uniontown -- not realizing how far it was. He arrived just as the students were being dismissed for the day.
There was enough time for Mr. Laraque to pose for pictures with the class and sign a few autographs before the buses left, and Ms. Marmol came away impressed.
"I can't stress enough what a nice person he was, how gracious he was," she said.
"What he taught my kids is priceless. It goes way beyond textbooks."
The children wrote thank-you notes to Mr. Laraque, including this missive from Phillip Arnold:
"I learned from you coming to our school that you should help people even if you don't know them. I hope when I grow up, I'm just like you. I knew you were kind and generous because you could of [sic] just sent Stanley back in the mail, but you took the time to come and see us. I like that!"
During his own childhood, Mr. Laraque, who was raised by Haitian parents in Montreal, was always the only black kid playing hockey, and he has worked to promote the sport with minority children in Pittsburgh. Mr. Laraque is heavily involved with Hockey in the Hood, a local organization that works through the NHL Diversity program.
Mr. Benson, the founder of Hockey in the Hood, said participation has been increasing and Mr. Laraque's arrival -- the Penguins acquired him via trade from the Phoenix Coyotes in February 2007 -- has given minority children a visible role model.
Mr. Laraque, one of just 12 black players in the NHL, acknowledges that if he had grown up in the Mon Valley rather than Montreal, he would have gravitated toward a different sport, and hockey's expensive equipment can be a barrier for poor families. But whenever he has a chance, he educates kids about famous black players in the NHL -- including Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr -- and tells them, "Hockey is for everyone."
Mr. Laraque also has made numerous visits to Boys and Girls Clubs, Imani Christian Academy in Penn Hills and a recent trip to The Doorway in Bellevue -- which supports children with family members who are in jail or addicted to drugs -- with eight Penguins teammates in tow.
And that's only a start.
"When you look at the life that we have and how lucky we are, really, I don't think it's a lot to do," said Mr. Laraque, who earned $1.3 million this season, his 10th in the NHL.
"Because at the end of the day, when you retire, a lot of people don't care about [Stanley] Cups and how much money you made and how much money you won. No, they care about you as a person in the community, if you're a good Christian. ... If you can be a difference in a city that matters, then that's really what's important."
Those who encounter him tell the same story. Like Gary Lee, the front office manager at the Marriott across the street from Mellon Arena, where Mr. Laraque frequently stays. Mr. Lee said the Penguin was always kind to him, and as a result, he bought a No. 27 shirt to wear to Game 3.
Sally Crompton, of Scott, who was wearing an autographed replica Laraque jersey, recalled his kindness to an ill co-worker. "He has a smile that will light up the room," she said.
How, then, does one reconcile gentle Georges with the man who throws haymakers in scores of YouTube videos?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the video in which Mr. Laraque takes on -- and defeats -- the Los Angeles Kings' Raitis Ivanans, while Mr. Laraque was with Phoenix in 2006. In the moments before the throwdown begins, Mr. Laraque is captured by a TV network microphone discussing the impending fight, then telling Mr. Ivanans "good luck" before pounding him.
"I appreciate him standing up for his teammates, but he's not a bully," said Christine DiMuzio, of Penn Hills, who was tailgating before Wednesday's game. "He doesn't take cheap shots."
The steel-fisted Penguin sees his role as an embodiment of the values of the city.
"The fighter, you don't have it easy, you do the dirty work and all that stuff. That's what the town is," Mr. Laraque said.
"So when [fans] see that, you kind of see that admiration that they have. I understand why, and it's just awesome because if you describe me as a player, the best fit for me would be a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh."
When he drops his gloves to engage another foe, Mr. Laraque does it with a sense of honor and purpose, the same way he approaches serving the community. Upon his retirement from hockey, Mr. Laraque said he will go back to school to become a lawyer, another apparent contradiction that makes perfect sense when you realize it's just another way of dispensing justice.
"I love defending people," he said.
"On the ice, off the ice, defending people, helping people -- it's kind of the same thing."