WHA Hall of Fame

Making It in a Big Way

Little Andre Lacroix's businesslike approach to hockey is paying off

By Stan Fischler

Andre Lacroix takes a very pragmatic approach to contemporary hockey. Something like “it's a business to do pleasure with you.” It's not that he likes money more than the next fellow, rather that he can smell a good business situation the way he senses a goal-scoring opportunity.

The records indicate he's been coming up green in both areas. Lacroix led the World Hockey Association in scoring two years ago (50-74-124) with the Philadelphia Blazers, finished second to Walton last year (30-81-111) with the Jersey Knights, and has been right up there scoring in the hockey business. A onetime member of the Philadelphia Flyers, Lacroix went into partnership a few years ago with his onetime Flyers' teammate Ed Van Impe, opening an ice rink in the Philadelphia suburb of Brookhaven, Pa. Business has boomed ever since the Lacroix-Van Impe Skateland opened during Christmas week 1972, even though the Flyers front office took a dim view of the enterprise.

The NHL club viewed the business marriage as something of an NHL-WHA merger made in hell. Rumors flew that the Flyers wanted to banish Van Impe to Oakland, or some such icy Hades, if he didn't divorce himself from his WHA partner. Van Impe called the bluff, remained a Flyer, and he and Lacroix have been coining rink money ever since.

“I knew I was going into some kind of business,” says the French-Canadian Lacroix. “My theory is that you never know how long you're going to be able to play hockey, so if you get hurt on the ice you should have something worthwhile to fall back on. There were two choices for me-either distributing beer or running a skating rink. I figured it would take too much time to get into the beer business. Besides, I liked the possibilities of owning my own rink. I can run my own hockey school. I can scrimmage on it in the off-season. And, of course, my partner and I can make a buck.”

In the United States these days, owning an ice rink is like having a license to print money, especially in the hockey-mad Philadelphia area. Lacroix's Skateland has more demands than it has time to supply leagues with ice. “I figure that we can pay for the rink in a few more years. Then it'll belong to us. Meanwhile, we want to build three more. The first one cost $650,000. A pre-fabricated building. We got a good loan-a steal at five-and-a-half-per cent.”

Lacroix the businessman got lucky when he landed with the Flyers. He became friendly with Howard Casper, an attorney who is Philadelphia's answer to Alan Eagleson. Casper has something of a golden touch, and Lacroix was on easy street long before he was traded two summers ago to Jersey (now the San Diego Mariners).

“When I jumped to the WHA and signed with the Blazers,” says Lacroix (who speaks fluent English), “I got myself a long-term contract with good money; five-years, no-trade. I had an agreement with the owner of the team that if I got 50 goals, we'd renegotiate my contract. When the Blazers moved out to Vancouver, the new management wouldn't renegotiate. So I talked to several other WHA clubs-Quebec, Houston-before getting the deal with Jersey. My contract was renegotiated-I signed a new five-year contract-and a trade was made.”

The trade had second-leading WHA scorer Ron Ward and goaltender Pete Donnelly going to Vancouver for Lacroix and the rights to negotiate with former Blazers' goalie Bernie Parent. It was not a happy deal for eastern fans. They liked Ward. He meshed neatly with Brian Bradley and Wayne Rivers in 1972-73. And Ward was relatively big.

“Everyone says I'm small,” Lacroix argues, “but I'm not that small. I'm 5-foot-8, 175 pounds. And what if I am small? Henri Richard is small and he's played 20 years in the NHL with no problems. Look at Yvan Cournoyer. He's small. The trick with us little guys is to use speed and avoid the checks. Camille Henry also managed pretty well in the majors for a skinny little guy.”

Like Henry, Lacroix grew up in the hockey breeding ground in and around Quebec City. Henry followed Jean Beliveau's act at the Coliseum, then Lacroix stepped into the spotlight after Henry moved south to the Rangers. It was something like trying to follow Frank Sinatra's act at the Desert Palace. Lacroix skittered around the ice like a waterbug, however, and before long they loved him in Quebec as they loved “Le Gros Bill” and Camille “The Eel.” And they still do love him. Remember the ovation he got from Quebec fans when he was introduced before the first Canada-USSR game?

He played a year of junior in Montreal, then moved to the Canadiens' junior team in Peterborough. In his two years with the Petes, he had a number of notable achievements: he won the OHA scoring championship, the Red Tilson Trophy (as most valuable player), the Max Kaminsky Trophy (for gentlemanly conduct), and a reputation as an exceptional scorer and playmaker. He counted 119 points his first year in Peterborough, and 120 the following season. In short, he and linemates Danny Grant and Mickey Redmond were the terrors of the league.

He returned to Quebec for three years, playing with the Aces in the American League. He finally distinguished himself so noticeably (41 goals, 46 assists in 54 games) in 1967-68 that Philadephia couldn't overlook him any longer. He finished out that season in the NHL, and spent three more years with the Flyers (scoring at least 20 goals each year). Philadelphia, unfortunately, was suffering from an inferiority complex. Every time the Flyers played the St. Louis Blues, they'd get the tar beaten out of them. A scapegoat had to be found, and Lacroix was as likely a little guy as anyone. He was dealt to Chicago for huge Rick Foley.

Chicago was not precisely heaven. Coach Billy Reay wisecracked that Lacroix was the first French-Canadian he'd ever seen who couldn't skate. It soon became evident that the Hawks weren't ga-ga about Lacroix, and vice-versa. So when the WHA came along, Lacroix welcomed it with open arms-and open wallet.

“We play where the money is,” he says. “It's not worth it to me and a lot of others, especially the kids, to sit on the bench in the NHL when we can get a lot of ice in the WHA. That's why it's a mistake to think the NHL is such a big thing with the younger players. They consider the money first. There isn't much difference between the leagues, except that the NHL defenses are more experienced.”

This season, in San Diego, Lacroix's future has never looked brighter. His play on behalf of Team Canada has silenced the critics. He has yet another new five-year contract. Like all the Team Canada members, he suffered emotional decompression when the series ended; but all in all, he's in good shape. He has rented Ken Broderick's San Diego house-complete with swimming pool-and is developing a distinct fondness for southern California.

There is another Andre Lacroix already zigging and zagging-Andre Jr. He's four years old and, according to the old man, “has new tricks every day. This summer, I put him on skates.” Then, to hockey school. And, maybe, by 1990 he'll have a five-year no-cut contract, or he'll be running one of Lacroix's rinks.

“Why not?” the pragmatist winked. “Hockey's been good to his father.”