Just beyond the knot of quaint colonial-looking shops and pubs, past the quaint little colonial church and all the quaint little colonial people of Avon, Conn., there is a quiet lane called Climax Road that parts two thickets of trees. Climax runs up a small hill, then jogs past a quaint, quiet, colonial graveyard. Even county planners must have their little joke.
A left at the first headstone off Climax takes you to the home of Andrè Lacroix, the quaint little semi-colonial (he is 33) center for the the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. Lacroix, his wife Suzanne and their two children moved into the house two months ago, so Andrè hasn't had time to visit the cemetery that lies brooding at the end of his block. For the time being Lacroix can imagine that the graveyard is populated by the ghosts of the WHA, franchises that were weak or sickly and had to be rooted out.
Lacroix knows all about this Hamlet business; in his seven seasons with the WHA he has watched five franchises expire around him, and he is now with his sixth team. All of that might not be so bad if Lacroix were just an ordinary journeyman hockey player, but with 710 points in six seasons he is the league's alltime leading scorer and one of its most formidable stars.
So shed a tear along with Lacroix for the New York Raiders, New York Golden Blades, New Jersey Knights, San Diego Mariners, Houston Aeros, Philadelphia Blazers, Vancouver Blazers, Calgary Broncs, Alberta Oilers, Calgary Cowboys, Minnesota Fighting Saints, Chicago Cougars, Denver Spurs, Ottawa Civics, Ottawa Nationals, Toronto Toros, Miami Screaming Eagles, Los Angeles Sharks, Michigan Stags, Baltimore Blades, Cleveland Crusaders, Minnesota New Fighting Saints and Phoenix Roadrunners. R.I.P. Dayton and San Francisco, too.
October 22, 1978
In spite of Lacroix' accomplishments on the ice—twice he has been the WHA scoring champion, and until a sprained ankle sidelined him in midseason last year he had played in 443 consecutive league games—his teams have shown a distressing tendency to wind up in the sports world's East River wearing cement skates.
To be fair about it, Lacroix personally was involved in the deaths of only the Philadelphia Blazers, the New York Golden Blades, the New Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners and the Houston Aeros. But his reputation as a plague on solvency is prodigious, and it preceded him to New England. "A lot of the guys on the Whalers have already asked me if I would mind not buying a house here," says Lacroix. "They've heard that every time I buy a house the team I'm playing for folds."
Andrè Lacroix don't get no respect. And yet.... He has been selected for every All-Star Game in the league's brief history, played for Team Canada against the Soviets in 1974 and is admired by hockey connoisseurs for his deft stick-handling. "Andrè doesn't have great speed," says Whaler Coach Bill Dineen, who also was Lacroix' coach last season in Houston, "but he's very elusive and hard to hit. There are some guys that the puck just seems to follow around, and that's the way it is with Andrè. The hardest thing to do in hockey is pass the puck well, and Andrè does it as well as anybody."
Lacroix' ability to deal the puck to his wings effectively will be crucial to the Whalers' Avco Cup hopes this season. To Lacroix' right on the Whalers' No. 1 line will be the venerable (50 years' worth of venerable) Gordie Howe, and to his left will be Gordie's 23-year-old son Mark. For Lacroix, this means that he will have centered for both Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe in his peripatetic career.
Lacroix has never been a charismatic player like Hull or Howe or Bobby Orr, and perhaps there is a certain symmetry in the fact that the best scorer in the second-best league has had to suffer all the same sort of indignities the WHA itself has had to endure. Last winter, as if in anticipation of Lacroix' arrival, the roof of the Hartford Civic Center, the Whalers' home, collapsed under the weight of a heavy snow. The Whalers have had to relocate until 1979 in the smaller Springfield, Mass. Civic Center, and their fans in Hartford must make the 35-mile drive up I-91 to follow the team.
That is the kind of disaster that has dogged the WHA and, in a smaller way, Lacroix. "Everybody tells me I've finally gotten lucky because the Whalers are a solid franchise and aren't likely to fold," says Lacroix. "Well, I once played for Ray Kroc, who is worth about $500 million, and when he decided he didn't like hockey anymore, his team went under. If I'm able to stay in New England even one season, I'll consider it a bonus."
Lacroix never dreamed he would spend most of his hockey career living out of moving cartons. He was the last of 14 children in his family, and to this day his parents still live in the house in Lauzon, Quebec where he was born. Lacroix started playing hockey at the age of 12—late by Canadian standards—and he learned quickly to make every shot on goal count. "My father was an oil deliveryman and never made more than $75 or $80 a week," says Lacroix. "A hockey stick in those days cost one dollar, so I was always afraid to take a slap shot for fear that I might break my stick. You don't break many sticks with a wrist shot. My father used to use tape and nails to hold the sticks together so they would last for a long time."
When he was 18 Lacroix went to Peterborough, Ontario to play junior hockey, and in two seasons he scored 239 points, leading the Ontario Hockey Association in scoring the first year (1963) and narrowly missing the title the second. Twice he also won the Red Tilsson Award as the most valuable player in the Ontario Hockey Association, once beating out Bobby Orr of the Oshawa Generals. But Lacroix spoke not a word of English when he arrived in Peterborough, and he found few people in Ontario who spoke French.
"I used to hang around a bowling alley in Peterborough because the people there knew I didn't speak the language and they were very nice to me," he says. "I decided I wasn't going to sit in my room for two years and stare at the walls, so at night when I came home from practice I would write down 25 or 30 verbs in English and study them. I figured if I could learn the verbs, the rest would follow." Lacroix also lugged around a pocket dictionary, and by his second year in Peterborough he spoke passable English. His English now is impeccable, except for his use of hockey's maddening rhetorical "eh?"
Turning pro in 1966, Lacroix played two seasons with the minor league Quebec Aces. In 1967-68 Lacroix was leading the American League in scoring after 54 games (41 goals, 46 assists) when he was brought up to the NHL by the Philadelphia Flyers, a first-year expansion team. In 18 games with Philadelphia, Lacroix had six goals and eight assists and helped the Flyers capture first place in the six-club expansion division. He followed that with 24-, 22- and 20-goal seasons for the Flyers, who were not known as the Broad St. Bullies in those days, but his playing style—finesse, not muscle—never endeared him to Philadelphia coaches.
"I know what magic Lacroix can flash with the puck," said Vic Stasiuk, who coached Lacroix in Philadelphia for one season. "The thing is, his magic doesn't work against certain clubs, particularly those that employ a tight checking game. When they do this, all too often Andrè can't play his normal game." Also, Stasiuk had a younger center on his roster named Bobby Clarke, and by the end of the 1970-71 season Lacroix was seeing only spot duty.
Two significant things happened to Lacroix while he was still playing for the Flyers. First, part of the roof of the Philadelphia Spectrum blew off in a windstorm in 1968. Then Flyers President Bill Putnam told Lacroix, "As long as I'm in this chair, you'll be with the Flyers." Brimming with confidence and feeling secure, Lacroix bought a house that year in Delaware County, Pa. and planned to settle down with his new bride Suzanne. But in a matter of months Putnam departed the Flyers' organization, somebody else sat in his chair, and Lacroix was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks at the beginning of the 1971-72 season.
"That was the start of our real-estate ventures," says Suzanne. "We decided to keep the Philadelphia house, which was a good move psychologically. My son calls it his 'blue house' because it has blue carpeting."
Lacroix spent a miserable season in Chicago, scoring only 11 points and writhing most of the season at the end of the bench. He also had to suffer the outrageous barbs of snippy Chicago Coach Billy Reay, who called the 5'8", 175-pound Lacroix "the first small French-Canadian center I've ever seen who can't skate." Quite understandably, when the WHA was born in 1972, Lacroix leaped at the opportunity to join it.
The Quebec Nordiques originally owned the WHA rights to Lacroix but traded them to the Miami Screaming Eagles, Unfortunately, the Miami franchise succumbed before it ever left the ground. Lacroix was subsequently peddled to the Philadelphia Blazers—his third team in a matter of days—and his travels were really just beginning.
Philadelphia owner Bernard Brown gave Lacroix a five-year contract at double the $30,000 he was making in Chicago and then obligingly threw in a fistful of incentive clauses with bonuses for scoring. Lacroix has always negotiated his own contracts and he has shown a remarkable sense of his market value and a shrewdness for fine-print language. By finessing the scoring bonuses from Brown, Lacroix earned himself an extra $20,000 after leading WHA scorers with 50 goals and 74 assists that first season.
"During the past six years I've signed three five-year contracts and one six-year contract," says Lacroix, "and I've never been traded in that time. I've also made it a rule that I don't sign a new contract until the old one has been settled. I've never been shortchanged a single dollar in the WHA." Moreover, as franchises collapsed all about him, Lacroix never failed to come out of the mess with a new contract for more money. Of course, it is difficult to say how many of Lacroix' teams faltered partly because they could not meet his salary.
In any case, the paycheck that Lacroix now receives from the Whalers is covered by funds from the Whalers, the league, Ray Kroc, Ronald McDonald, you name it. "To tell the truth," says Lacroix, "I don't know who pays what or where the money comes from. But every two weeks the money comes, and I don't ask questions."
Nobody was asking many questions during that first boisterous year of the WHA and, naturally, mistakes were made—and millions of dollars were lost. Says Lacroix, "I probably could have owned a franchise those first couple of years. A lot of the owners thought the way to increase attendance was to go out and hire a bunch of goons, which showed how little they really knew about hockey. The wise owners signed the Bobby Hulls and Gordie Howes, and that brought people in for a while. Now the owners are finally learning that they have to bring along the young players from the juniors."
In his own hilarious way Bernard Brown, the Philadelphia trucking magnate who owned the Blazers, was an exemplary WHA first-year owner. "The first time Brown met with our general manager," says Lacroix, "he said he wanted all of the players to report for work at nine in the morning and stay until five each night. He expected us to practice for a while, work around the building for a bit, then practice some more. All he knew was that his truck drivers worked from nine to five, and he couldn't understand why he was paying us all that money to work for two or three hours a day."
When Brown, who also had Derek Sanderson under contract for $2.7 million, lost interest in that sort of goldbricking after the 1972-73 season, he sold his team to buyers in Vancouver. Lacroix, however, became a free agent because of a clause in all his contracts that permits him to refuse to play for a Canadian team. The agreement, he says, is strictly for business convenience. At any rate, instead of going to Vancouver, Lacroix was on his way to the New York Raiders, who became the New York Golden Blades while Lacroix was en route.
The gold paint was barely dry on the blades of the Blades' skates when it became apparent there was going to be trouble. Playing in Madison Square Garden was one of the league's big goals, but when it finally happened it was a colossal bummer. "You could hear people talking all the way across the arena," recalls Suzanne Lacroix. "The Garden was great, but 4,000 people in a building that seats 17,500 was depressing."
Meanwhile, Lacroix had signed a new five-year contract with the Golden Blades, purchased a new home in West Orange, N.J. and begun filling it with furniture. By October the team was in bankruptcy court, and Lacroix had his new house up for sale.
The league abruptly moved the Golden Blades to the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J., called them the New Jersey Knights and asked the players if they would use their own sticks and whatever equipment they could scrounge up until the cash-flow problems eased up. None of the Blades' uniforms, pads or sticks could be moved down from New York without running the risk of having the Knights' gate receipts, such as they were, attached by creditors. "And we were the first big league team New Jersey had ever had," says Suzanne. "At least we called ourselves big league."
"There was no dressing room in the Cherry Hill arena big enough for the visiting teams to use," recalls Lacroix, "so they had to dress at their hotels when they played us. To see Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe climbing off a bus, in the snow, with all their equipment on, made you feel 25 years behind the times."
Which, as it turned out, was right about where the New Jersey Knights were. They finished 32 games out of first place that 1973-74 season, and by the opening of the following season the team had been moved again, this time to San Diego. By the end of the Mariners'—and Lacroix'—second season, in 1976, owner Joe Schwartz was unable to meet the team payroll. For the final month of the schedule and throughout the Avco Cup playoffs the San Diego players competed without pay. "During the off-season, the league had to make up one schedule with San Diego in, one with San Diego out," says Lacroix. "No one knew if there would be a San Diego for the 1976-77 season."
Then Kroc, the McDonald's hamburger tycoon who also owns the San Diego Padres, decided that, after all, a puck looked pretty much like a Quarter-Pounder. He bought the Mariners and signed Lacroix to a new, guaranteed contract for six years and more than $1 million. Lacroix settled comfortably into the Southern California way of life, cruising around in a dune buggy and a van, and his children, Andrè Jr. and Chantal, adopted a cocker spaniel which they named Marina, after the team.
"The first two years we were in San Diego," says Lacroix, "we rented a place because we didn't know how long the team would last. But when Kroc came along, we bought a house with a Jacuzzi and a pool and started looking for schools for the kids. Eight months after I signed the papers on the house, we had to put it up for sale."
When Kroc scuttled the Mariners after the 1976-77 season, Lacroix once again went franchise shopping. "I chose Houston because the Aeros had been around for six years, and I thought that with their new building [the Summit] they would be included in any merger with the NHL. We decided to have a house built for us in Houston. So, of course, at Christmas the team almost went under. When I heard that the team might fold, I didn't even blink. My attitude was, 'So what?' I had tried to choose teams that had a good chance to stay in the league, and that obviously didn't work. So I decided that whatever was going to happen, well, let it happen."
To everyone's surprise, Kenneth Schnitzer, who owned the Summit, came to the rescue. He bought the Aeros and managed to keep them afloat for the remainder of the 1977-78 season. The family's new home was completed last March. By July, though, the Aeros had folded, and the Lacroix house, barely occupied, was up for sale.
Schnitzer eventually sold the Houston players to Winnipeg, meaning that Lacroix was once more a free agent. After consulting with his lawyer, he signed with the Whalers. "They have the most stable organization in the league, eh?" says Lacroix wryly. Out on Climax Road, you could almost hear the low laughter as it rumbled beneath the headstones, six feet under.