BROSSARD, Que. — General manager Bob Gainey feels his Montreal Canadiens have a far better chance of making the playoffs without enforcer Georges Laraque than they do with him.
So even though Laraque will remain on the team’s roster and his salary will still count on the team’s cap figure, Gainey deemed it necessary Thursday to jettison Laraque from the Canadiens for the remainder of the season.
“I told him that he would not be continuing as part of our group for the rest of this season, for reasons of lack of productivity and distractions to our group,” Gainey said. “We felt our goals were more achievable to continue without him as part of the group.”
Laraque told TSN just after receiving the news Thursday morning that it was classless on Gainey’s part to let him go considering everything that was going on in Haiti, where both his parents are born.
Gainey said Thursday that the decision to let Laraque go had in fact been taken prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the country, but it was put on hold in light of Laraque’s ties to Haiti. He also made an offer to Laraque on Wednesday to take a leave of absence, but it was refused.
When Laraque met with reporters later Thursday afternoon in the parking lot of the Canadiens suburban practice facility, he had a far different tone to his words.
“It’s obviously extremely disappointing for it to finish like this, but what’s going in Haiti right now has given me some perspective,” Laraque said. “I want to look at the positives. It was an honour for me to wear the Canadiens uniform, and I’m happy I was able to play in front of my family.”
Still, he did take exception to Gainey’s assertion that he had become a distraction to the team.
“I’m wondering what that means,” Laraque said. “The Canadiens were never shy in asking me to do things in the community and I never said no. Is that being a distraction? I never made any negative comments to the media just so I wouldn’t be a distraction. I never did anything to embarrass the team. If he said that, it’s his opinion.”
Laraque was in the second year of a three-year, US$4.5-million contract that includes a no movement clause, which means the Canadiens could not place him on waivers or send him down to the American Hockey League. That would have allowed Montreal to remove the remaining portion of Laraque’s salary from its salary cap figure.
Gainey would not confirm whether or not the Canadiens will buy out the final year of Laraque’s contract at the end of the season, but that’s the scenario Laraque envisions.
“I’d be surprised to play this year,” Laraque said. “Realistically, they’ll buy me out after the season and I’ll sign with another team, unfortunately.”
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin did not want to get into the specifics of his relationship with Laraque, saying simply it was nothing personal.
“It was a hockey decision, he wasn’t helping our team win games,” Martin said. “We made the decision that we could win more games without him.”
The Canadiens signed Laraque in the summer of 2008 in the hopes his reputation as the top fighter in the NHL would allow some of the team’s smaller players to play with more confidence.
But Laraque suffered a groin injury at the very start of his first training camp with the team, which became a recurrent theme as back and groin problems flared up throughout his time with the Canadiens.
He only played 61 games in a season and a half, scoring his first goal in a Canadiens uniform last week against the Dallas Stars. In that time Laraque got into 13 fights — nine last year and four this season — and it appears that was not enough for Gainey.
“The decision was made to reinforce our team with a physical player, one who could make our smaller players feel more at ease on the ice,” Gainey said on the decision to sign Laraque. “That decision was made a year a half ago, and now looking back we can see it was a decision that didn’t work out.”
Laraque often referred to a “code” that enforcers live by where they couldn’t simply fight whoever they wanted. It came up very early in Laraque’s time here, in his second game with the team in 2008, when Phoenix Coyotes defenceman Kurt Sauer injured Canadiens winger Andrei Kostitsyn with a questionable hit to the head.
Laraque challenged Sauer the next time they were on the ice together by giving him a face wash from behind, but could not get him to engage in a fight. Sauer later fought with former Hab Tom Kostotpoulos and won the bout handily.
After the game, Laraque spoke of the “code” and that it was normal for Sauer to turn him down because “he’s not a heavyweight.”
“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.”
Laraque said he feels he did the job that was asked of him, and the only reason he couldn’t do it to his full capacity was a lack of ice time.
“I’m holding my head high,” Laraque said. “Every time I played I gave everything I had.”
Despite his lack of effectiveness on the ice Laraque remained a wildly popular player with the fans, regularly getting loud applause at the Bell Centre when his name came up in pre-game player introductions.
He was very much involved with local charities and recently took up the cause of animal rights, deciding to become a vegan and speaking out against the annual Canadian seal hunt. But his efforts over the past week have been concentrated on trying to help recover from the devastation in his ancestral land.
“The only good thing about this is now I can focus on doing major fundraising for Haiti to help re-build the nation,” he said. “So I’ll just use this free time for that.”
Canadiens players felt it was an unfortunate situation, but none were particularly upset by the news of Laraque’s departure.
Gainey did not want to specifically mention how Laraque had become a distraction to the team, but defenceman Hal Gill provided a hint.
“It was tough when he wasn’t playing,” Gill said. “I think everyone is upset when they’re not playing, but it’s a team thing.”
Laraque often explained his low fight totals by saying he didn’t want to leave the Habs shorthanded by picking up an instigator penalty for running after someone, but defenceman Josh Gorges said perhaps it would have been a good idea to do it once in a while.
“His intentions were good in that sense,” Gorges said. “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.”
Laraque says he remains convinced that he can continue to effectively play the same role he has throughout his 13-year career, and he looks forward to proving it next year.
“I have no doubt I’ll be able to find a team next year, probably not at the same salary, but that’s not important,” he said. “My challenge, like any player who leaves Montreal, is to show how useful I can be.”