As I typed the e-mail message, I figured it was a long shot. I wanted Georges Laraque, the NHL's biggest bruiser, to fly to a prairie town 500 miles away from his home in Edmonton, just to talk to a black major junior who's struggling with his career.
I'd first met Laraque at Christmas time in New York, when he and three of his teammates -- Mike Grier, Anson Carter and Sean Brown -- agreed to talk about their experiences as blacks in hockey. They were good-natured, but weary of the subject. Wherever they go, reporters ask them what it feels like to have a quarter of the league's black players on one team. You can only say "good" in so many ways.
Laraque has a deep French accent and a laugh that rattles your fillings. And while his teammates described childhoods full of opportunity, he shuffled in his seat. His father, Eddie, emigrated from Haiti in the late '70s to escape the bloodthirsty politics of "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Eddie's engineering work with metals brought him to a company in the small Quebec city of Tracy, where he had the only family of color. Canada prides itself on not having the United States' history of racial strife. But when Georges started playing hockey, his neighbors jeered him with the whole ugly racist canon.
He went home crying every night, which slowly ate at his father, who told him, "You're supposed to be having fun, not going through this." Georges didn't listen. He spent his early years literally punching his way through the hate and narrow-mindedness. Now he's respected for his power. He's also relieved to be playing beside Carter and Brown, who are known for their finesse, not fighting.
Black parents keep their kids out of hockey because they're afraid to have them typecast as goons, not because it's too expensive. (Hockey is pricey, but plenty of black parents would foot the bill if they felt it offered more opportunity.) Skilled shooters like Carter and Grier are giving the next generation something new to aim at, doing for them what another ex-Edmontonian, Warren Moon, did for black quarterbacks.
But change comes slowly. That was evident when the four Oilers traveled to Central Park's Lasker Rink in Harlem. It was a luminous New York night, and if the rainbow of faces staring back at them was any indication, Harlem has more than its fair share of hockey fans. As a 17-year-old named Joselito Quinones shoved his ponytail into his helmet, he said, "Look around. It's starting to happen. Everyone who loves this game is here. This is the real New York. You got a lot of colors here, man."
Problem is, it will take a decade for a kid from that camp, or any one of the 29 others sponsored by the NHL, to become a real prospect. Only a handful of black players -- among them a 210-pound, 6'1" defensemen named Shawn Belle, who's playing in the Western Hockey League for the Tri-City Americans -- are expected to be high picks in the 2003 draft. Frank Bonnello, the head of the NHL Central Scouting office for North America, couldn't think of any who were going be drafted as impact players this June.
One hopeful who'll be waiting by the phone, however, is Jeremy Jackson. He was supposed to be picked in the sixth-round last year, but no one touched him. When you meet him in the current issue of The Magazine, you'll hear him explain why. He believes he was too militant about loving hip-hop, and scared too many coaches and teammates away.
This isn't -- pardon the phrase -- a black-and-white story. Jeremy has issues. But his story does speak to the next battleground for the NHL: fighting the cultural isolation that awaits a new generation of hip-hoppers who want to make hockey their own.
All of which brings us back to the e-mail that I sent Laraque. I told him that Jeremy wondered if the hockey world had room for him. I also mentioned that a friendly ear might mean a lot. It was a long shot. But Laraque leapt at the chance.
As you'll see, in The Magazineit was a special night for both men. They talked about music and clothes and Laraque told Jackson to keep the hockey faith. "It gets easier the higher you get," he said. "Once you get to the NHL, we're all men. There's more respect." Jeremy liked that. Then Georges gave him his personal e-mail address and told him to write any time.
Afterwards, on the way back to the airport, Laraque was subdued. "The hockey world has a hard time adjusting to more ethnicity," he said finally. "It's never seen a kid like Jeremy, a Tupac hockey player."
Suddenly, Georges seemed to take Jeremy's journey very personally. "Sometimes," he said. "it's hard to be yourself in this game."
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