‘Deca Dance Club’ – Georges Laraque vs Matt Johnson

| Craig Jones

Welcome back to the “Deca Dance Club’, where only the finest clientele are offered entry. The conditions are simple: have a dance partner who you’ve tangoed with at least 10 times in the NHL? You’re in. Oh, and it should also be noted that you must be a fan-favourite to get into this prestigious club, but we all know if you’re a player who’s fought the same opponent ten-times… you’re an automatic fan favourite, no matter what city you play in. The rules of entry are simple but the qualifications to get in demand years of sacrifice, countless ice bags on the hands and the selflessness to step in for your teammate – not sometimes – every time

Georges Laraque vs Matt Johnson

1st dance – January 05, 1999 – 1st period – 7:17

They say the first dance is the most memorable and, unfortunately for Matt Johnson, his first fight against Georges Laraque isn’t one he wanted to brag about, let alone remember. Laraques was eager to get involved in the action during his first game after getting the call-up from Hamilton and saw targeting Johnson as his perfect opportunity. Laraque’s strength kept Johnson at bay and, most importantly, off-balance. Johnson was so desperate to keep his footing that, at one point, it looked like he was considering a UFC-style single leg takedown. He opted against it. The saving grace for the Ontario native was that Laraque’s heavy haymakers… missed. If the Oilers enforcer would have landed any of those punches, even one, the outcome of this fight would be completely different. While the majority of fans would give the decision to Laraque, Johnson was an intelligent fighter and used this first fight as a lesson in learning how to fight a stronger rival. It’s almost like he knew they’d dance again…

2nd dance – February 18, 1999 – 1st period – 15:25

Johnson wasn’t going to leave Hollywood without fighting Laraque one last time in the Kings’ purple. The two heavyweights squared off in a first period battle seemingly out of nowhere. Perhaps words were exchanged, a slash a shift earlier, or they just wanted to get after it. Before Johnson lost his balance, he was able to land a good right-hand as Laraque was trying to rip his helmet off. The former Los Angeles second-rounder fought his way back to his feet before forcing Laraque to the ground. Both of those giants fought back to their feet before the linesman could intervene, landing them a couple more jabs each. This would be the last fight of the century between the two players. There aren’t many men willing to fight another heavyweight in the first period of a 2-2 game. One theory – the pump-up song in the locker room was Prince and they knew they had to party like it was 1999.

3rd dance – March, 13, 2000 – 1st period – 18:04 

New year. New century. Old rivalries. The duo had to wait until March to get their dancing shoes on again, only this time in Atlanta. The Thrashers selected Johnson in the expansion draft and in their inaugural season hosted the Edmonton Oilers along with his old pal, Laraque. This battle was not one that would have made the Rock’em’ Sock em’ collection – both men tried to land blows, they just didn’t. At the time, Johnson had a tendency to throw huge, overhand punches, which – when they connected – were deadly. However, the trouble with doing that on skates is that when you miss your balance doesn’t stand a chance. After Johnson went down, the linesman quickly jumped in before a punch could land. The pair skated to the box and I’m sure were surprised when they only had to serve 2 minutes rather than 5. Even though the ‘Roughing-fight’ between these two wasn’t how they wanted to start the new century, they knew another bout was right around the corner.

4th dance – October 14, 2001 – 1st period – 6:18

Johnson being in the Eastern Conference and Laraque in the West meant that the two got a much-needed sabbatical from each other, but after Johnson was acquired by Minnesota for a 3rd-rounder, the two were quickly reunited. The Oilers were down two early in the 1st period – Laraque knew he needed to give his team a boost and Johnson gladly obliged. The two chatted at the face-off circle and had the gloves down at the same time the puck was dropped. Both of these two behemoths tried to land a big first-punch, causing them both to lose their balance. Luckily, similar to previous fights, they managed to get back on their feet before the linesman could jump in. Once again, few punches were landed but it couldn’t have felt good for Johnson when Laraque body-slammed his 247 lbs frame on top of him to end the fight. Kudos to Johnson for taking the invitation to dance that Sunday night in Minnesota. With his team up by two he could have ignored Laraque’s request – most observers wouldn’t bat an eye. But a prerequisite to being in the ‘Deca Dance Club’ is respect and that was on full display in a game that would end in a tied game and draw in the fight.

5th dance – December 28, 2001 – 2nd period – 3:06

The internet is rarely defeated. But, for this fight, a lack of a video means going old-school and resorting to game notes. The record stressed that tensions had been brewing after a physical 1st period and things finally boiled over when Laraque, skating for a loose puck, had some words with Johnson, which ended with to the two dropping their gloves. The running theme between these dance partners was that they both liked to go for the knockout shot. Upside: making contact = a fast win. Downside: when both players miss, both players go down. In this case, Laraque was able to get Johnson’s helmet off and land two lefts before Johnson slipped and went down. The linesman quickly intervened and ended the fight. In the past, these warriors were able to quickly get back on their feet to keep the scrap going – maybe the holidays were a little too festive for these fan favourites in 2001?

6th dance – January 02, 2003 – 1st period – 16:08

Todd Marchant was never a stranger to taking a big hit in order to get the puck in deep and in 03’ things became a little easier for him. Georges Laraque relished the opportunity to stand up for his teammates, so when Johnson took liberties with Marchant in the 1st period of a January game at Skyreach Center he knew he would have to answer the bell. Laraque didn’t jump Johnson, instead they chatted about the -20 degree weather outside and then danced. Neither fighter was able to land many significant blows but Laraque was able to get Johnson’s helmet off and land a left-hand before the former Peterborough Pete lost his balance. The strength advantage of Laraque appears in every fight, which is reflected by his incredible ability to grapple. Laraque may not have inflicted the most damage but his ability to subdue opponents with his strength also meant he rarely took any in return. Johnson knew that when he drilled #26 into the boards, he would have to answer to Laraque and he certainly held his own. Overall, this dance was a draw, with a slight edge for Georges.

7th dance – January 02, 2003 – 2nd period – 9:09 

Most people can relate to the feeling of having a decent meal at a restaurant but then being blown away by the dessert. On January 2nd, the dessert blew the meal out of the water. The second tilt of the evening between the two behemoths was jump-started when Johnson laid a huge, clean hit on Laraque and stood overtop of him… both men immediately dropped their gloves. It may have taken him seven dances, but this may be the first clear-cut win for Johnson in their storied rivalry. Laraque was visibly shaken after the initial hit, let alone the couple of jabs that followed. However, the strong grappling skills of the former St. Jean Lynx helped him avoid any further damage and wrestle Johnson to the ice. Regardless, the force needed to send a 245 lbs man off his feet and into the boards speaks to Matt Johnson’s strength, who played 15 lbs lighter than his rival. With this, although they lost 2-1, the building was buzzing as Oilers’ fans got to enjoy their ‘Thirsty Thursday’ with two good fights from the same two warriors. Fights not only amp the team up, they fire the crowd up. A fight in the 1st AND a fight in the 2nd?! Edmonton fans must have felt Laraque was the second-coming of Dave Semenko.

8th dance – December 18, 2003 – 1st period – 9:27

If Johnson was on a victory lap after the duo’s last tilt, he was in for a rude awakening while in Alberta’s capital on December 18th. The two squared off in the middle of the 1st period where it became apparent that they had been learning from each other’s dance-techniques. Case and point: the two tried to keep their distance before trying to grab the other under the collar. Both missed several times before Laraque finally grabbed Johnson’s jersey and pulled him forward. The Montreal native landed two solid left hands before wrangling Johnson onto the ice. At this point, the game had already had a fight and misconduct, so these heavyweights stepping up capped a physical and exciting first period. The enforcers are always fan favorites and often given the best nicknames, so it was no surprise to see “Moose” and “Big Georges” always giving the fans a hell of a show.

9th dance – December 30, 2003 – 1st period – 14:42

Although the last game of 2003 ended in a 2-2 draw for these squads, for Johnson it must have felt like a win. The big forward was able to screen Tommy Salo to help tie the game 1-1 before holding his own in a short but exciting battle with “Big Georges.” There was something spooky in the air that whole game… Three ‘holding the stick penalties’ and two high-sticking penalties is far from the norm. Perhaps it was Grigori Rasputin playing some tricks on the 87th anniversary of his assassination? I don’t know if Rasputin was a hockey fan, but I do know that no fan likes seeing three ‘holding the stick penalties’ in a game. This meant that a spirited bout between two heavyweights was needed and welcomed to offset the stick madness. Although Johnson was only able to briefly keep his balance before he was hauled to the ground, he can take solace in landing a few hits, only absorbing a couple and from knowing he was an integral part of his team prior to walking away from the NHL’s most northern city with a point.

The Deca Dance – February 13, 2004, 2nd period – 9:41

Everyone knows that you never cut into a couple dancing, but “Big Georges” didn’t follow social norms that night before Valentine’s day. Jason Smith was about to tangle with Matt Johnson but Laraque, in a loving mood, stepped in for his Captain to dance with his rival one last time. “Moose” started throwing early and caught Laraque with a straight right hand that visibly stunned the Oilers enforcer. After this, Laraque lost his balance trying to dodge the uppercuts coming from Johnson and, unable to regain his footing, only endured more punishment. Would Jason Smith have fared better against Johnson? Probably not, but it would have been tough to do worse than Laraque did that night. While “Big Georges” was able to land a couple before the two tumbled to the ice, this was a no-decision for Johnson. That night belonged to Minnesota. They won the fights and held the Oilers off the scoreboard to cruise to a 3-0 win. The rivals had no idea that a lockout was lingering in the next season and were hoping to keep their dance partner for years to come. Unfortunately, this was the last brawl between the two enforcers. Matt Johnson left the league due to injuries and an array of issues, including a significant struggle with addiction. Laraque would go on to enjoy one more season in Edmonton before making his way to Phoenix. While the fights between Johnson and Laraque may not have been the bloodiest or the most exhilarating, those warriors would have done anything for their teammates and, with that, the fans would have done anything for them.

This addition to the ‘Deca Dance Club’ is different from the rest. Since his playing career ended, Matt Johnson had been in and out of rehab. While Johnson had a great NHL career and was the epitome of a great teammate, his post-playing career has been tumultuous. Johnson went off the grid after he left the NHL due to injury after the 2003-2004 season. Unfortunately, the former Kings draft pick has been homeless, living on a California beach and completely disconnected from his family for quite sometime. The latest news was his arrest on New Year’s Eve in 2017 after he allegedly caused $1900 worth of damage at a Denny’s restaurant. Our thoughts and prayers are with Matt Johnson and his family now and always.

[email protected]