As he grew up, Georges Laraque’s parents tried to persuade him not to play hockey. They chose not to drive him to practice in the hope it would discourage him. So Georges pedalled a bicycle through the snow and cold in Montreal with a stick in one hand and an equipment bag strapped to his back.
“They thought I would quit, but I didn’t,” Laraque says.
His mother and father immigrated to Canada from Haiti, and preferred that he played soccer, which they believed was a less dangerous and more inclusive sport. They also feared their Black son would be unwelcome in rinks where there were so few faces that looked like his.
“They wouldn’t come to my games because they thought people in the stands were going to call me the N word,” Laraque says.
At six years old, he heard his first hateful taunt.
“It happened in minor hockey more than anywhere else,” Laraque says. “It was just horrendous.”
Laraque went on to become a bruising forward for 12 years in the NHL. In 2000-01, he was a member of an Edmonton team that was historic for its makeup. Along with Laraque, the Oilers had four other Black players on the active roster in Sean Brown, Anson Carter, Joaquin Gage and Mike Grier.
Never before or since has there been such representation on one NHL team. That season, there were 16 Black players in the entire 30-team league. The Oilers had 30 per cent of them.
“At the time, we joked that at least the music in the dressing room had gotten much better,” says Gage, a backup goalie who grew up in Kitsilano, a neighbourhood on Vancouver’s West Side.
A fifth-round draft pick in 1992, Gage said the composition of the 2000-01 team didn’t resonate with him until the Oilers flew into St. Louis to play the Blues. When they arrived, Gage picked up a copy of that day’s USA Today and was surprised to find a picture of the five of them on the front page of the sports section.
“I saw it and said, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Gage, now 47 and still living in Edmonton, recalls. “That was when I felt that I was part of something special.”
He was a soccer player as a kid but became interested in hockey through his friends. One day his dad took him to a second-hand shop and bought him gear, and that night Gage wore it as he watched a Maple Leafs game on Hockey Night In Canada.
“As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Gage says. “I couldn’t stand up on skates but I just loved it.”
He became a goalie as a novice because his coach realized he had an aptitude for it, and also, he says, because “I didn’t have to leave the ice.”
He is grateful because he did not experience racism as he grew up. It happened later, when he was in the minor leagues.
“It was just guys skating by me and saying stuff,” Gage says. “I took it as par for the course. I pretended not to hear it.”
He was Laraque’s teammate in the AHL and briefly was his roommate with Edmonton.
“In the minors, you would hear a lot of guys yelling stuff at Georges,” Gage says. “I remember one time where it was really uncomfortable.”
Laraque says he was only called a racial slur once in the NHL, in 2005 by Sean Avery of the Los Angeles Kings. Afterward, Avery denied it.
“I was proud of the moment that I made it to the NHL,” says Laraque, 44. “After that, I realized that to [get there] was the problem. The entire time I played as a kid I was called the N word. I am proud of anybody of colour who makes it to the NHL.”
Laraque, who hosts a show on sports radio in Montreal, does some public speaking. He visits jails and talks to other people who had a tough childhood.
“I grew up through that hatred,” he says.
The Oilers went 39-28-12-3 in 2000-01, and were eliminated by the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs. It was Kevin Lowe’s first season as general manager following the departure of Glen Sather, and Craig MacTavish was the head coach.
Brown, a strapping defenceman from Oshawa, Ont., had two goals, three assists and 110 penalty minutes that season. In 1995, he had been a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins, with whom Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first Black player.
Brown grew up in an interracial family. He says he was 11 the first time he realized he was different from most everyone else that played hockey.
“It became obvious because there were so few of us,” Brown says.
He says he grew up watching Tony McKegney. The latter was one of the NHL’s first Black stars. He scored 320 goals over 13 years, and had a season-high of 40 with the Blues in 1987-88.
McKegney grew up in Sarnia, Ont., and at the time theirs was one of only two Black families.
“We were accepted through sports and our athletic ability,” McKegney says. “For me, hockey was the conduit that made it work.”
Brown says he also did not think much about the 2000-01 Oilers’ makeup at the time.
“When you are playing you are just one of a lot of guys who are pulling on the same rope,” he says. ”Now, looking back, I am very proud. It was a special year.”
The five players got together last week to do a podcast moderated by Carter, who works as a studio analyst for NBC. As the league celebrates Black History Month, players are wearing decals on their helmets to honour O’Ree, and stories are being shared that champion Black achievement in the game.
Gage concluded his career by playing for teams in Scotland, Sweden, Germany and Italy.
When he arrived in Kassel in 2003 to play for the Huskies of the German professional league he received a rude welcome. He played in an exhibition game the day after he travelled there, and after it, players were invited onto a stage in the arena’s parking lot.
When Gage was introduced, people in the crowd hoisted a sign and began chanting.
“I didn’t speak German so I didn’t know what they were saying,” Gage says.
Afterward, teammates told him the sign and chants directed at him were racist.
“I went back to my hotel and phoned my girlfriend and told her I wasn’t sure if she should come,” Gage says. “I told her it might be too dangerous. At that point, I wasn’t even sure I would stay. I actually didn’t feel safe.”
Fans showed up at the team’s practice the next day and apologized for the unruly behaviour. The coach pulled him aside and told him how much the organization wanted him to stay.
“That actually made the decision for me easy,” Gage says. “It went on to be a great season. It didn’t start off on a great foot, but it got better. The bar wasn’t set too high at the start.”