It’s very rare that a person rises to the top of the GM ranks in the NHL without having a playing background or a university education. Pierre Lacroix managed to become a titan, an absolute titan, in the industry despite possessing neither of those. And when he died Sunday, reportedly of complications of COVID-19, the Colorado Avalanche and the city of Denver lost the greatest sports executive they’ve ever had.
But more than that, the 72-year-old Lacroix will be remembered as a genuinely fine person and family man who managed to scale to the summit of his professional while keeping a friendly and warm demeanor. “You can have a great career and not be a good person,” said former NHL GM Brian Burke, “but he was a really good person. Great sense of humor, loved his family. And you could trust him. If he said he’d do something, he would do it.”
New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello goes back with Lacroix to the very first transaction he ever made in the NHL, signing Bob Sauve as a free-agent goalie for the New Jersey Devils in a transaction he finalized with Lacroix, who was Sauve’s agent at the time, on a roadside payphone on his way to New Jersey. The two have maintained a close friendship ever since. “His success speaks for itself,” Lamoriello said. “But it’s hard to explain what a good man he was. And even after he got out of the business, we stayed in contact quite a bit. Just a good human being.”
In the 1970s, while working in a sporting goods store and later as a sales representative for the Carling-O’Keefe brewery, Lacroix caught on as a scout with the Laval National in the Quebec League. The way Bob Sauve remembers it, coach Claude Labossiere got suspended during the 1973-74 season and Lacroix took over temporarily as coach, leading the Titan to a rather uninspiring 4-9-1 record. But it was that short stint behind the bench that sowed the seeds for his rise in the hockey industry.
Sauve and Lacroix became friends and after Sauve was drafted in 1975, he asked Lacroix to come with him to speak to a potential agent to represent him. In the elevator after the meeting, Sauve declared that Lacroix would be his agent, which began a 22-year career in the business before he was hired as GM of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994. Not long after Sauve joined Lacroix, a young teammate by the name of Mike Bossy signed on and Lacroix gained a foothold in the industry.
“He was a fun person to be with,” said Sauve, who joined Lacroix as an agent, then took over his business when Lacroix left for the NHL. “He had a certain joie de vivre to him. He liked to play jokes. He got very close to his athletes. We weren’t just athletes to him. We were friends.”
The same could be said for his players once he became a GM. In fact, it was his close relationship with Patrick Roy that helped him convince the Avalanche owners to deal for the Hall of Fame goalie in 1996, a move that cemented the Avs dynasty. Lacroix and Roy first met in a St-Hubert restaurant in Granby when Roy was playing junior hockey and Roy knew from the beginning that choosing Lacroix would be a wise move. “I loved my first meeting with Pierre,” Roy told Le Journal de Quebec. “Knowing Pierre today, he was an extraordinary salesman who had an extraordinary charisma and who made you feel as if you were part of the family.”
And Lacroix was never afraid to make a bold move to help his hockey team. Not only did he trade for Roy, he dealt first overall pick Owen Nolan for Sandis Ozolinsh, and acquired the likes of Rob Blake and Ray Bourque, both of whom contributed to the Avs’ second Stanley Cup championship under Lacroix, in 2000-01. And his impact is still being felt in Denver today. As team president, he groomed and advocated for Joe Sakic to become the team’s GM, a move that took some time to bear fruit, but is looking better with every move Sakic makes to return the Avalanche to contender status.
When I learned of Lacroix’s passing, the first thing I did was go to the Hockey Hall of Fame website to find out what year he had been inducted into the shrine, only to find out that he has not been. Which is something of a travesty, to be truthful. Even though Lacroix was a GM for only 11 years, he accomplished more than many GMs do in an entire career. Not only did he win two Stanley Cups, the Avalanche were the gold standard for organizations during his tenure, winning nine straight division championships and 18 total playoff rounds while compiling a .604 points percentage. The Avalanche, meanwhile, were near or at the top of the NHL list when it came to the best group of prospects almost every year of Lacroix’s tenure.
Lacroix was a GM for just 896 regular-season games, but he packed a Hall of Fame career’s worth of winning in that relatively short time frame. Unfortunately it will now have to be posthumously, but Lacroix not being in the Hall of Fame is a mistake that needs to be corrected.