Sunday, 22 May 2016

RDS' John Kordic and Georges Laraque documentaries.

With the absence of the Canadiens from the playoffs, and to celebrate its 25th anniversary, RDS has been running a lot of documentaries and such programming, and much of it has been fascinating. For example, the one-hour retrospective on John Kordic’s career was very interesting, and went over familiar ground, how he was a legitimate defenceman prospect coming out of the Portland Winterhawks organization, and a final season with Seattle in the WHL. In those pre-internet days, he was one of the few prospects we’d actually read about in the papers between the day they were drafted and a subsequent training camp, he was drawing a lot of attention as a very likely future Canadien, with that intriguing mix of size and skill and toughness.

We mostly know how it turned out, through various factors John got pigeon-holed as an enforcer in the pros, a role he seemed to embrace with vigor. Back then the Canadiens were, as they have through their history, going through a spell when they were generally undersized, and other teams tried to out-tough and intimidate them. Serge Savard was the GM who tried to turn things around in that regard, and his drafts and the Sherbrooke Canadiens produced some youngsters like Sergio Momesso, Claude Lemieux and Brian Skrudland who could play hockey but play tough against any opposition.

The Canadiens already had Chris Nilan as their enforcer, and he was a superb technical fighter who could take on all comers, no matter what size imbalance existed, but he didn’t really instill fear in opponents, not like the Rangers with huge guys like Nick Fotiu or Ed Hospodar, or fearsome heavyweights like Bob Probert or Dave Brown could.

At least Knuckles had that screw loose, the ability to draw attention and get opponents off their game and change the momentum. His linemate Guy Carbonneau once explained how sometimes when they were sitting on the bench and the game was not going in their favour Chris would tell him to get ready, that he was going to start something on the next shift, and Guy admitted how he’d get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, think to himself “Aw, heck, here we go…” Sure enough a few minutes later he was in the middle of a huge scene with people grappling and refs blowing the whistle and gloves and equipment littering the ice.

John Kordic became the true heavyweight we’d been looking for, maybe since the days of John Ferguson. In the seventies the Canadiens had Gilles Lupien and Pierre Bouchard, but they more big tough guys who could rumble, legitimate third-pairing defencemen who could pull double-duty when the going got tough, who could cancel out any team’s enforcer during a game. John was more of a true, dedicated fighter, a guy you’d toss some raw meat to in his cage between games, and unleash and send out against your Lyndon Byerses.

For me there was a memorable game at Le Colisée against les Nordiques, when John took on, one after the other, all three of their enforcers and tuned them all up, and then cruised by the Nordique bench and taunted Michel Bergeron, who was losing his mind, asking him to send out more weaklings for him to fight. If I remember correctly, shortly thereafter, the NHL instituted a rule that once you had three fights in one game, you were expelled, your night was done.

The RDS documentary did a passable job of retelling his story, how he clashed with his father about his role, how his father thought he should stick to hockey and not fight all the time. They told the familiar tale of how he showed up at training camp one year looking just massive, more huge than athletic, more bodybuilder than hockey player, how the rumours of steroid use started, about his acne and disproportionate physique, how players just don’t get that much bigger in a couple of months.

The surprising thing in the documentary for me was the allegation that John’s mercurial turn as a Canadien, his problems with discipline and drug abuse and untimely demise, may have originated from a run-in with Portland team owner Brian Shaw, a man who was subsequently accused of sexually abusing some of his players. Unfortunately, the doc just threw that in at the end, without doing any further research, any digging, when it should have been covered more in depth. In any case, a couple of testimonials by those who knew him best described how John became a different person, almost overnight, after playing for Mr. Shaw.

Another interesting documentary was a “Trajectoires” special on Georges Laraque, a player who I admired when he broke in with the Edmonton Oilers, how dominant he was, the undisputed heavyweight of the league in my mind, I never saw him lose a fight, and we saw a lot of their games out West. I sort of regretted how he didn’t land on the Canadiens, but also thought that the Oilers maybe overspent, taking him in the second round, a steep cost for an enforcer.

The thing is though, as often happens with these guys, he wasn’t just a goon in the LHJMQ, he had a lot of raw skill, lots of athletic ability. They told the story how he was a man among boys playing minor hockey, how he’d dominate, even though he went up against players who took up the game at an earlier age, or who had the advantage of playing against kids who played higher levels of competition, at All-Star tournaments, summer hockey. Meanwhile, bouts of discrimination, and his father’s insistence that school comes first, may have conspired against Georges to some degree.

One story he told was how he didn’t tell his dad he played on a travel team, he’d go to hockey games on public transit, and to away games with parents of other kids, so he managed to keep it a secret until a year end tournament that involved spending the weekend. Another story was how, after a coach had showed a racist attitude, Georges’ father pulled him out of hockey for the year, instead signing him up for speed skating, along with his sister. Georges did well, winning medals and competitions, and he credits the year of speed skating for how he was a pretty good skater in the NHL and had strong legs, but you wonder how much this held him back as a hockey player, how hard it is to make up for a lost season of hockey at that age.

One troubling tale he tells is how, as a 16 year old, he tried to avoid fighting with outright goons in the LHJMQ, tried to stick to hockey and the spontaneous, ‘natural’ fight here and there, but his great size made him a target. He mostly managed, except for one game against the Granby Bisons, when during the warmup their head coach Michel Therrien harangued him, taunted him that he wasn’t so tough, that he was afraid to go up against his enforcer, a 20-year old ‘specialist’. Sure enough, Georges gave in during the game and got his nose busted for his troubles, falling to the ice, bleeding profusely, shocked at losing his first fight.

He explained that this is the only fight he ever lost outright, and he regrets that he never got a chance to avenge himself. When he played in the AHL he played a few games against this player, who staunchly refused any invitations and studiously avoided the now mature, fully-grown Georges.

There were other surprising insights, how Georges could have played in the LHJMQ right after being drafted in Midget, but he deferred himself for one year, figuring that he would develop better playing a further season in Midget AAA. And he did this again in the pros. He had a great camp after being drafted by the Oilers, and team execs were talking to him as if he’d start the season in the NHL, but he explained how during a pre-season game he found himself lined up against Bob Probert for a faceoff, and he couldn’t believe how fast this was happening. He realized that if he played in the NHL, that would be his job, dealing with a Bob Probert, and he didn’t feel ready for that.

So he tells the tale, disbelieving it himself today, how when the Oilers were trying to tell him that he’d start the season in Edmonton, he kind of refused the Oilers’ offer, telling them he was probably better off going back to Junior for another season. In hindsight, he probably benefited from this, he might have been eaten alive in the NHL and not had the long career he did, but you wonder how this player’s career might have been affected. Maybe he would have developed better with NHL coaching and stiffer competition? Maybe he becomes a star and the apple of the Oilers’ eye, instead of that headstrong kid who doesn’t ask “How high?” when they tell him to jump?

In any case, Georges returned to the LHJMQ, but not with his St. Jean team, but rather traded to the Titan, and bounced to another team before landing with Michel Therrien’s Granby Prédateurs, funnily enough. Michel Therrien hadn’t come across very well in the previous anecdote, goading a 16-year-old into a fight with his adult goon, and we all know how Georges feels about the Canadiens’ head coach currently. It obviously wasn’t the warm and fuzzy relationship the coach had with Francis Bouillon, for example. But the team did win the Memorial Cup that year, so that tenuous partnership did end relatively well.

And we get to learn a little more about that year, that relationship, with RDS's a special on that Granby Prédateurs team, the first Québec-based LHJMQ team to win the Memorial Cup since Guy Lafleur’s Remparts in 1971 (the Cornwall Royals had won the Memorial Cup also). It’s interesting to see how Georges Laraque describes his time on that team, playing for that coach who he didn’t have the best first impression of.

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