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Laraque has a heart as big as his fists

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Georges Laraque has

always been just a phone call away from any
charitable cause that can benefit from his help.
Georges Laraque video highlights 
PITTSBURGH -- To Georges Laraque, the word "heavyweight" is often overused. But not when you call this 6-foot-3, 243-pound winger from Montreal, Quebec, a heavyweight good guy.

Everyone has Georges' number. But not for the reason you might be thinking. Don't be misled by the fact that this gentle giant has scored only 52 goals in 11 NHL seasons -- only once topping double-figures when he scored 13 goals for the Edmonton Oilers in 2000-01 -- compared to the 1,037 regular-season penalty minutes he's racked up in that same time frame.

The number that works best for Laraque is the fact that every charity, everyone who needs a laugh, a good word, some kindness, has Georges' cell phone number and knows he'll drop everything to help. Charity. That's what distinguishes this guy who makes an impact on the ice with the same guy's real-life persona off the ice. And he'll go far, far out of his way to bring happiness to others if he can.

"I don't like the image. I don't like fighting. I don't threaten people. It's not my nature. That's the farthest thing on my mind when I put on my hockey uniform," Laraque said in the midst of the Stanley Cup Final, where his Pittsburgh Penguins are facing off against the Detroit Red Wings. "The way I look at it, hockey is just a game that I love to play ... and to keep playing I guess I have to fight because it's a job I am pretty good at."

There's no look of contempt or scowl on his face, but rather a big smile. Look at it this way -- Georges Laraque was gifted enough to be selected in the second round, 31st overall, of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. He's good enough to have remained in the best league in the world for 11 seasons. But he's a better person.

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Sat May 24: Red Wings 4, Penguins 0
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Crosby front and center in critical victory
The Penguins captain put his team on his shoulders and potted two goals to lead Pittsburgh to a 3-2 Game 3 win over Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final ...more

Wings give credit where credit is due
Despite some lofty expectations after two straight shutouts, the Red Wings discredited any theory that they were cruising past the Penguins in the Final . ...more

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Talk to a young couple that may be too immature to handle having a baby and are fed up with listening to the little one cry a little too much. They likely have heard of this hockey role player who has become a bigger role model away from the rink. Members of Canada's council against Shaken Baby Syndrome have a Web site that pictures a shirtless Laraque caressing a baby.

Above the photo of Laraque with a kind smile on his face is the slogan: "Are you tough enough to be gentle? It only takes a moment."

Those are the real important things in Georges Laraque's life ... obviously apart from the four goals he scored in the regular season and one more in the playoffs to help the Penguins get to the Stanley Cup Final and the chance to fulfill a boyhood dream of raising the Cup in celebration.

For Laraque, it's all sorts of charities. Give him a call. He'll be glad to bring his smile into your life.

When asked if there's one act of kindness that really tugged at his heartstrings, Georges remembers a 19-year-old boy in Edmonton, who back in May 2003 was fighting for his life, stricken with muscular dystrophy. His name ... Jordon Klym.

"I had just checked into a hotel in Calgary. Hadn't even unzipped my bag when a friend of a friend called and asked me if I could come to Edmonton, that there was this kid who was going to die. He had only a couple of hours to live and his last wish was to see me," Laraque said with some pride in explaining the harshest of circumstances. "I quickly checked out of the hotel, got into my truck and made the two-hour, forty-five minute drive back to University Hospital in Edmonton so fast that I was sometimes driving on the shoulder. But that was OK, because I knew under the circumstances I wasn't going to get a ticket. I got to visit with Jason in the ICU and I think it helped him at an hour of need."

Other celebrities would go through the motions but probably not give the heavyweight effort like Georges did to see this fan, this kid who was looking for a smile, a laugh before he left this world. Not Laraque. Call him to shake a sick kid's hand, tell an ailing father a joke or hockey story, visit a hospital ward or just spread some good cheer. Anything.

"Jason lived another few days when doctors said he had no more than hours to live. That touched me. That made me feel good that I could help someone else in a time of need," Laraque told me, his voice breaking as he talked about it years later. "My momma brought me up to be a good Christian man and I'd like to believe that's exactly what I am. But we all have to work at it. To me, one of the purest things to do in life is to give back. And the best thing for me to do to pay God back for giving me a chance to play in the NHL is to give back to the community.

"What I am when I'm off the ice is a nice person, a positive person ... I hope. I laugh all the time. When I retire, I don't want to be remembered as a fighter. To me, what's more important: Winning a Cup? Beating up guys? Or being there, trying to make a difference?"

Laraque particularly loves kids, even though he has none of his own. He'll never turn down the opportunity to bring a smile to a youngster's face. And even though he was a little awkward with the language when he entered the NHL, this French-Canadian wanted to show the size of his heart and impact of his smile was stronger and more powerful than the image he has gained as arguably the best fighter in the NHL.

He brought that philosophy of helping with charitable work with him in Edmonton, when he went to Phoenix at the start of the 2006-07 season and again when he arrived in Pittsburgh later that same season. He gives his cell phone number to everyone if it will help.

A member of the Penguins pointed out how wonderful this impact player on the ice is and what an impact he has made on the Pittsburgh community in just a little more than a year.

At Thanksgiving, the official said, there was Georges at a food kitchen handing out free turkeys with his teammates to needy families in the Hill District. The Pens official also mentioned how active Laraque has become in the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, or playing in the NHLPA charity poker tournament for his cause -- the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation in Edmonton. Or helping Pittsburgh inner-city youth with the Hockey in the Hood program.

Georges never is at a loss for words when it comes to good deeds. He had one more he wanted me to know about.

"I got one of those Flat Stanley's (a little character made by students that is mailed out along with a disposable camera and a journal) just before the Penguins were set to face the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs," Laraque recalled gleefully. "The hope is that the recipient will mail back the character, the cameras, and the journal, and the kids can see what adventures their little figure had experienced.

"I recruited my cousin to help me with a plan that I had that I thought would be neat for the kids."

That afternoon, 21 fifth-graders at Hatfield Elementary looked up to see Laraque standing in their classroom doorway.

"I had the camera, full of shots of Stanley with various Penguins and the journal was filled out," he added. "My feeling is fans come from all over the place to watch our games. Why can't I/we go there?"

Instead of saying, "Make my day" with an opponent, Laraque made the day for a lot of good kids that day.

Laraque says he never forgets his roots in hockey, starting with Edmonton, where he still makes his home in the offseason. Every Halloween, Georges makes sure the house is decorated and friends are there to hand out candy. He returned after his first season in Pittsburgh last summer armed with a handful of signed Sidney Crosby jerseys, then walked into the local sports radio station and said, "Let's give these away." He didn't stop there. He also drove the jerseys out to the winners' homes ... or met them at a Tim Horton’s nearby.

This is one of those feel-good stories. Whether Georges Laraque is in the lineup for the Penguins in these finals or not, the term "heavyweight" still fits. This 6-3, 243-pounder is simply a heavyweight good guy.

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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