In his playing days, Georges Laraque was known to issue verbal cautions. Keep up the guff, he’d tell a misbehaving opponent, and you’ll get your head pounded. And by pounded, Laraque meant like Omaha Beach in 1944: until he retired at the end of last year, he was the unofficial heavyweight champ of the NHL. This fall, Big Georges’ warning goes out to figure-skating fans, and lucky for them it is more in the vein of public service. “Don’t drink hot beverages while watching me skate,” he says, chuckling. “You’re going to laugh so hard you’ll spill it on your lap.”
He’s only half kidding. At six foot four and 270 lb., Laraque is the largest hockey player yet to lace up for CBC’s hit reality series, Battle of the Blades, and while his heft served him well in his role as enforcer for the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, it won’t in this competition—a strangely absorbing spectacle in which retired hockey stars are transformed into the on-ice consorts of seasoned female pairs skaters.
Pygmalionism is Battle’s main draw (can a defenceman do a Besti squat?). But in addition to Laraque, season two features some of the lightest, smoothest skaters to grace the NHL in recent years—Valeri Bure, Russ Courtnall and Theo Fleury, whose stumpy physique tended to mask the purity of his talent. Bigger men like Patrice Brisebois (6-2, 204 lb.) and Todd Warriner (6-2, 190) fill out the cast, along with erstwhile tough guys P.J. Stock (5-11, 183) and Kelly Chase (6-0, 200). Yet it’s the flyweights Laraque fears most. “I wasn’t the best skater in the NHL,” he says in a thundering understatement. “So for me, it’s all disadvantage. My skate blades are super-long and the longer your blades, the harder it is to manoeuvre.”
The contrast in players is no accident. Battle is an atypical pairs skating event, in that the men attract as much attention as the women, and last year’s series revealed an unexpected range in performance styles among the players, from the disco-era flash of former New York Ranger Ron Duguay to the unabashed romanticism of Claude Lemieux. (Intriguing sidenote: Lemieux actually sang one of the songs to which he and Shae-Lynn Bourne skated; no less than three of this year’s male contestants have asked to do the same.)
So when he sat down to list potential constestants, series co-creator Kevin Albrecht deliberately sought out extremes. “We want to show we can choreograph a Kelly Chase,” he says. “But there will be weeks when the Chases will have an advantage over the Bures because they lend themselves more to the musical style we’ve chosen for that week.” The gambit has already given rise to unanticipated challenges. Skate-makers had to custom-build a boot to fit Laraque’s size 13½ feet, for instance, and threw in extra blades in case they fracture under his weight.
On the upside, Big Georges excelled at a recent clinic in which the contestants practised lifts, hoisting women over his head with one arm. Awed by the display of raw strength, Bure, a former speedster with the Canadiens and Calgary Flames, rejects the suggestion that he has a leg up on the big guys. “Carrying a girl over my head is not going to be easy,” he says from Los Angeles, where he now lives. “In one sense, we’re all at the same level here. We’re doing something that is not natural for us.”
They’ll have the best of help, of course. Four of the women from last year’s cast—Bourne, Isabelle Brasseur, Christine Hough-Sweeney and Jamie Salé—are returning; they’ll be joined by Russian-born skaters Violetta Afanasieva and Ekaterina Gordeeva (a two-time Olympic gold medallist), along with Tokyo-born dynamo Kyoko Ina and four-foot-11 Annabelle Langlois of Hull, Que.
Pairings will be announced this week, but word is tiny Langlois has drawn the task of reinventing Laraque.
Her first order of business may be to stop the big guy from downgrading expectations. “I’m sure people are going to find it comical to see a 270-lb. black man figure skating,” he told Maclean’s after his first wobbly turns on toe-picked blades. Maybe so. But Laraque can be sure of one thing: nobody who watched him play hockey will dare crack a smile.