Ice age is coming

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

There will always be room in hockey for a nice guy.

Tough guys? That's another story.

That's why Georges Laraque's homecoming turned into an evening of mixed messages yesterday, with Edmonton's fans showing their former slugger just how much they miss him, and the Oilers showing him just how much they don't.

Laraque can read the writing on the wall in both official languages: As more and more teams eliminate the enforcer position from their payrolls, more and more players who fight for a living are now fighting to stay in the league.

"I think they are becoming extinct," the 29-year-old said of his colleagues in the policeman's union. "I feel lucky that I've been in the league for nine years because in the next couple of years there won't be any.

"I feel bad for the up and coming tough guys in the league who won't have a job. I can see in the future that there won't be any more."

There haven't been many Oilers more beloved than Laraque, but the Oilers deemed his role unnecessary in today's NHL and are none the worse for wear because of it. Laraque, meanwhile, was pointless and minus-5 through his first seven games, was a healthy scratch in the eighth and is running out of dance partners in the new game.

IMPORTANT ROLE?

If he's a dinosaur, the challenge now is to prove he can still serve an important role.

"He's in a catch-22 because the last four or five games we've been getting behind early, and it's tough for a guy like him because you don't want to take a silly penalty," said head coach Wayne Gretzky, who isn't ready to close the book on enforcement, otherwise he wouldn't have recruited Laraque out of Edmonton.

"One of the things about our team is we got physically pushed around a lot last year. We needed a presence and he's given us that presence.

'THE LITTLE THINGS'

"From that point of view I don't have any complaints. Our complaints were more from the point of view of positioning, puck pursuit and puck control.

"Guys like Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley, as tough as they were, they concentrated on the little things that allowed them to be contributors on good teams. That's really what I'm asking of Georges."

Telling him is more like it.

"(Healthy scratch) is not a position you want to be in but all I can do is play as hard as I can when I'm out there," said Laraque, who played 1:28 in the first period. "My style of game doesn't change. I have to be physical."

Good in the dressing room and great in the community, Laraque has to be better on the ice to survive the pugilist purge. Light-heavies who can skate fast and chip in offensively do most of the fighting now, but Laraque isn't quick and hasn't produced much since his 13-goal outburst six years ago. Last season's 73 penalty minutes were a career low for a full season.

Laraque doesn't lose many fights, but the new NHL is getting the best of him right now. "As I said to Georges: the better he plays the more he'll play," said Gretzky, who still sees enormous potential in the 243-pounder.

"Down low you can't stop him. With the new rules, all he has to do is take the puck to the net. You either have to haul him down or try to knock him down, and that's very difficult."

But on a struggling team that's always on its heels, the other net is usually 200 feet away. And all too often there isn't anybody on the other team to fight.

The ice age is coming.

"Georges can play the game, he's not just a guy who throws his mitts around," said Coyote teammate Jeremy Roenick. "You can use guys like that. But I do think he's right, in a couple of years they won't be around, which is too bad."


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