Figure skating Georges Laraque out to prove sport is tougher than it looks

Apr 7, 2011

By Canadian Press

STE-JULIE, Que. — His forehead is splashed with sweat, his lungs gulp for air and blood trickles from his cheek, yet Georges Laraque's figure skating practice is barely underway.

The ex-NHL slugger, best known for branding hockey opponents with his knuckles, has embarked on a mission to prove that figure skating is tougher than it gets credit for.

Only months after being captivated by the sport as a reality-show contestant, Laraque is in the middle of a tour that will see him skate in 50 pairs performances at amateur clubs across Canada.

He wants to encourage skeptical boys to give it a shot, and to stick with it.

"I tell them that actually figure skating is an extreme sport, it's tougher than hockey,'' said Laraque, after catching his breath during a training session with his skating partner in the Montreal suburb of Ste-Julie.

"Figure skaters are mentally and physically much tougher than many athletes.

"I get a lot of stitches from figure skating _ more stitches than I had in 13 years playing professional hockey in the NHL.''

As a bonus, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound Laraque, who looks more NFL defensive end than the next Elvis Stojko, gets a chance to practise his new love.

He would even consider swapping his NHL career with figure skating, if he could.

"If I had known that it would have been a successful one - I would have done it any day,'' said Laraque, who was one of the most-feared NHL heavyweights.

"Figure skating is such a beautiful sport, there's nothing to do with violence, it's so graceful and everything. . . If I was 100 pounds lighter, maybe it would have been different.''

Laraque said too many boys quit the sport early because they are teased for being figure skaters.

"They can't laugh at them anymore because they can say: 'Georges Laraque does it," said Laraque, who started figure skating last year for the CBC TV series "Battle of the Blades.''

Julie Marcotte, a figure skating choreographer working with Laraque, said he's been a big help for the sport, which is always looking for more males to partner with female skaters.

"A lot of young boys who love skating in primary school will (leave) the sport based on the fact that too many kids bully them or bother them with it,'' Marcotte said.

"It's the stigma that people have that the only men who go into skating are gay, so he's trying to make people understand that yeah, there are gay (men) but there are also straight men.''

Skate Canada insists the number of male athletes in the sport isn't on the decline - and that, if anything, there might be slightly more than in the past.

"We don't see ourselves in a real shortage, but like any sport we can always use more,'' said Mike Slipchuk, the federation's director of high performance, who considers hockey players good role models for young figure skaters.

"I think that's great - just to see that he's interested in doing this and to go out and be supportive of our sport and encourage people to stay involved is great.''

Since playing his last NHL game in January 2010, the 34-year-old vegan has kept his name in the media spotlight.

He's raised $2 million to rebuild a hospital in Haiti that was destroyed in last year's earthquake, has been a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and has also been the face of a campaign against Shaken Baby Syndrome.

But his most notable gig since leaving hockey could be his job as deputy leader of the Green party.

With the election now in full swing, Laraque expects his agenda to explode starting Friday when Green leader Elizabeth May visits Montreal.

He will campaign with her several times before the May 2 vote, even though he's not running for political office this time around.

Juggling his passions for the Greens and figure skating won't be easy, he admits.

The skating tour, during which he'll perform with several different partners, will take him around Quebec and even to cities like Barrie, Ont., and Edmonton.

For two events this weekend in Montreal, his skating partner will be 18-year-old Jade-Savannah Godin, who at five foot three and 110 pounds, is dwarfed by the hulking Laraque.

The two practised several lifts this week, including a challenging - and hazardous - move where Laraque tosses a twisting Godin up in the air.

As a figure skater, he's suffered his share of split lips and cuts, including a scar near his eye from a gash he sustained while training for "Battle of the Blades.'' It took 12 stitches to close up the wound.

This week, Godin's skate also drew a droplet of blood after it nicked him on the cheek.

"If I was to drop her, with the height that I throw her in the air, it's dangerous - and me, I could get a couple of elbows and punches in the face at the same time,'' he said.

"But as long as I'm on the receiving end, I'm OK with it.''