When the Pittsburgh Penguins reinstated Center Pierre Larouche last week following a two-game suspension, they were studiously, even stubbornly, ho-hum about it. Despite his tender years—he turns 21 this week—Larouche had already established himself as one of the NHL's flashiest performers, and the Penguins obviously hoped to pass off his suspension as an inconsequential interlude in his career. It was a little like what happens when a TV show resumes after being interrupted by a news bulletin. You know, sorry about that typhoon in Indonesia, folks, and...now back to Hollywood Squares!
In Larouche's case, this meant that everyone had to act as though Pierre had never sassed his elders, never arrived late to practice and never put himself ahead of his team, just a few of the myriad sins that had led to his brief banishment. "The suspension has been blown out of all proportion," insisted Baz Bastien, the Penguins' assistant general manager. "I don't know why the press has made such a big deal of it." And Coach Ken Schinkel intoned, "It's behind us. Let's talk about the future." Larouche wanted to look ahead, too, and spare himself the pain of dwelling on the $3,000 in lost salary the suspension cost him. "The suspension did me a lot of good," he said. "Now I just want to play hockey."
For all the soothing words, though, the fact was that l'affaire Larouche had been brewing ever since the prodigy signed a five-year $500,000 contract with the Penguins at the slightly preposterous age of 18. One of 10 children of a retired railroad engineer in the northern Quebec hamlet of Amos, Larouche scored 31 and 53 goals in his first two seasons, the youngest NHLer ever to attain such gaudy numbers, and his slick skating and sure stickhandling invited comparison with illustrious centers like Jean Beliveau and Stan Mikita. Larouche further won over working-class Pittsburgh by making the scene in night spots like the Anchor and the Gaslight, a dashing figure with a smile on his handsome features and a wisecrack at his lips. When a radio station sponsored a "Date with Pierre" contest, it got 1,500 entrants.
But Larouche proved less adept at handling his emotions than the puck; he alternately boasted about his deeds or sulked about his mistakes. He frequently showed up late for Penguin practices, then sloughed off when he got there. He seldom bothered to backcheck, explaining the deficiency with a quip: "If you're on offense all the time, there's no way you can get in trouble on defense." When a teammate referred to him as the "King," Larouche eagerly embraced the nickname with an Ali-like flourish.
If teammates and sportswriters indulged all this—and they did so to the point of overprotectiveness—one reason was Larouche's considerable charm. His rich contract enabled him to play the role of big spender, and this included impulsively lavishing $125 skates on the sons of friends. He signed autographs without complaint for two hours, and it was surely a fine gesture when he made a group of Penguin rookies feel welcome earlier this season by taking them all out to dinner. "Pierre loves people," says a friend, "and he wants them to love him, too. In fact, sometimes he tries a little too hard."
An insight into Larouche is offered by Ray Noonan, a bartender in the Jamestown Inn, who made the rounds with Larouche last Christmas Eve. "I think Pierre was nostalgic, spending Christmas alone away from that big family of his," Noonan says. He took Larouche home, where the Penguin center "acted like a little kid." Larouche and Noonan's 13-year-old son Butch wound up tossing a football around in the street at 3 a.m. Unfortunately, they attracted the police, and explanations were necessary.
"We just got this ball for Christmas," Larouche said. "We were trying it out." The cops shrugged and left. In the darkness they had neglected to notice the shoestring laces and worn spots on the 5-year-old ball.
With his growing stature in the NHL, however, Larouche's quickness with words has lately caused problems. In the Penguin locker room not long ago Larouche, who fancies himself a comedian, suddenly announced that he intended to quit hockey and start dealing in drugs. A reporter was in the room, and the remark found its way into the papers. Larouche is still furious about it. "The mothers of 16- and 17-year-olds see that stuff, and it is not good for my image," he says. "I didn't even know that guy was standing in the room."
Another consequence of stardom is that defenses now descend on Larouche whenever he skates near the puck. Larouche had nine points in the Penguins' first eight games, but he complained, "They're not giving me room to do anything." In his frustration he sniped not only at referees but also at his coach and teammates. "Little things sometimes bother me," he admits. "I should not be that way but I've got a quick temper."
What made matters worse for Larouche was the failure of the Penguins to show any defensive improvement over last season when, taking their cue from Larouche, they scored freely but did their checking only at the bank. In the early games Larouche played strictly at one end of the ice, as usual, and was repeatedly caught up ice while the opposition was peppering the Penguin goaltenders with shots. Compounding Pittsburgh's problems, No. 1 Goaltender Denis Herron broke his left arm in the first period of the first game, and has not played since. Without dependable goaltending to cover up their defensive blunders, the Penguins yielded an embarrassing 19 goals in two losses to Montreal and staggered to a 2-6-3 start, which left Larouche's mates far less inclined to tolerate his peccadilloes. When he failed to work up a sweat at practice one morning, Schinkel, ordinarily the most easygoing of coaches, angrily sent him home. On the team bus in Philadelphia last month following a 3-0 loss to the Flyers, Larouche said to nobody in particular, "I think I'll go to Europe." A teammate muttered, "We'll take up a collection to send you." Indeed, the Penguins' affections for Larouche had curdled to the extent that some of the players were referring to the King as "Dairy Queen."
The situation came to a head after the Penguins' best showing of the season, a 7-1 win over Los Angeles three weeks ago in the Civic Arena. Larouche contributed a goal and two assists but griped throughout that he was not getting enough playing time. When Schinkel put him into the game after one spell on the bench he snapped at the coach, "It's about time."
The next morning Larouche was 45 minutes late for practice, and the Pittsburgh brass announced that it was sending him to the Hershey (Pa.) Bears, the club's farm team. It turned out that Larouche's contract gives him the right to veto such a demotion, and when he did just that he was suspended without pay. "A kid like that has to realize he's not bigger than the team," said Bastien. When somebody on a phone-in radio program in Pittsburgh criticized him for missing practice, Larouche called up and protested, lamely, "I didn't miss it—I was just late."
Larouche's suspension lasted five days, during which the Penguins took to the road and beat Colorado 4-1 and tied Cleveland 2-2. Larouche promised the Penguin management that he would mend his errant ways, and he was reinstated. He also apologized to Schinkel and the players for his behavior. And when the Penguins left for Minnesota last week, it was a repentant Larouche who accompanied them.
"I was late for practice because I was oversleeping," Larouche said during the flight. "Maybe the bell rang on the alarm, but I didn't hear it. The suspension gave me a good time to think about things. I realized I was thinking too much about me and not enough about the rest of the guys. I was nervous and tight and not playing too good, but I was wrong to complain so much. A lot of kids my age would like to be in my spot. I know I have to change my attitude."
Larouche went scoreless in Pittsburgh's 3-2 loss to Minnesota, but he skated well and he just missed tying the game in the third period when one of his shots hit a goalpost. Back in Pittsburgh Saturday night, Larouche scored the game's only goal as the Penguins, suddenly a defense-minded bunch, beat the Philadelphia Flyers 1-0. Pittsburgh had not put the puck past Flyer Goaltender Bernie Parent in 262 minutes—more than four games—when Larouche broke in alone with slightly more than seven minutes to play, faked Parent out of position and scored.
Well, could this really be a new Pierre Larouche? The matter was discreetly probed by Penguin Captain Ron Schock, a solid-citizen type who during the suspension had been quoted—inaccurately, he later insisted—as saying that Larouche should grow up. Now he was saying, "Pierre is never going to change—and he shouldn't. He's cocky and a free spirit, and every team can use somebody like that. But he also wants to be one of the guys, and I think he's going to contain himself a little more now."
At least for the moment, Larouche seems to be doing just that. He was on time last week for every bus and plane, and during the games, between shifts, he cheered on his teammates with unaccustomed gusto. In Minnesota, Larouche even threw what looked suspiciously like a body check on North Star rookie Glenn Sharpley, and during one practice session he was properly respectful when Schinkel, catching him taking a breather on the sidelines, hollered, "Hey, what are you waiting for?" Larouche returned promptly to the ice, pausing only to pant, "I'm having trouble getting my wind back after the layoff."
And now let's go back to Hollywood Squares.