'I'm a Coyote now'

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

Wayne Gretzky had him at hello.

OK, maybe not quite at hello, but when the Great One called Georges Laraque at home yesterday and offered him a raise and the no-trade clause Edmonton wouldn't, it was all the enticement the eight-year veteran needed.

He gave the Oilers one last chance to keep him, for substantially less, as long as they'd write a no-trade element into the deal.

They wouldn't. And that was it, the end of what may have been the most powerful, popular, colourful era in Edmonton hockey. The second-longest serving Oiler - next to Ryan Smyth - is an Oiler no more.

"What I'm really disappointed about is that I held on to the (Phoenix) deal as long as I could," said Laraque, who signed a two-year, $2.4-million contract with the Coyotes yesterday.

"All I wanted was that no-trade clause. It came down to a little detail."

Laraque, who said in this space a few days ago that his Oiler days were likely over, didn't want to sign in Edmonton at a cut rate, only to be dealt a year from now. Rather than let someone else pick his landing spot, he's going to Phoenix.

"If I'm going to show a commitment to the city by taking less money, give me a commitment. Give me that clause. All the other teams I talked to were going to give me that clause, but the team that I actually wanted to stay with wouldn't. That was the difference in the end.

"I'm really disappointed. I'm just surprised they handled it like that. I didn't expect it."

Lowe didn't want to see the NHL's heavyweight champion go, but says fourth line enforcers simply don't get no-trade clauses.

"We made a decent offer, probably more than we would have wanted to," said Lowe. "But we didn't give Chris Pronger a no-trade and we weren't about to set a precedent with Georges. He came into my office at the end of the year and said he wouldn't be staying unless he got a no trade and I said sorry to hear that."

So was Laraque. Right up until the last minute, he thought he would be back in Edmonton next year.

"I was crying. When my agent came back and told me the Oilers said 'No. Wish him good luck.' I had tears in my eyes. I was crying. I knew that was it. This is the hardest thing that ever happened in my life."

But if anything can take the sting out of a divorce like this one, it's a call from Wayne Gretzky.

"I never, ever thought when I was growing up as a kid that the greatest player to ever play the game would call me up and say 'Georges, come play for me.' Wayne Gretzky! Unbelievable.

"I haven't felt this embraced by a coach for a long time."

Laraque was one of the most popular Oilers of all time as much for his engaging personality and soft spot for local charities as he was for being the most feared Oilers heavyweight since Dave Semenko. He'll be missed. How much remains to be seen. But the Oilers, flush at forward and team tough, view this as an acceptable loss.

Lowe points out that they have a lot of young wingers coming up who showed enough grit in last year's playoffs to ease any concerns about losing Laraque's muscle.

"The game is different now; with the new rules you can't face wash and chop behind the play and try to intimidate guys. Nobody pushed us around last year and I don't think anyone is ever going to push us around.

"Having said that, you can't discount his contribution. We made a decent offer and would have been glad to have him back if he wanted to play for us."

It hasn't been a good week in Edmonton. In three successive days Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek and now Laraque have blown town. They were for three very different reasons, but still, the optics aren't good.

"We're losing all our players," said Lowe, half jokingly. "To be honest, I'm kind of immune to optics. Wins and losses are what matter. We just have to move on. It's disappointing to see it come to an end, I know he was a fan favourite. We're sympathetic to that, but we have a lot of fan favourites."

Minus one.

"I'm surprised to see this, it feels like half the team is gone," said Laraque. "But that's not my concern anymore. As funny as it sounds, I'm a Coyote now."

'WE MADE A DECENT OFFER, PROBABLY MORE THAN WE WOULD HAVE WANTED TO.'

- Kevin Lowe


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