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Flyers Heroes of Past: Andre Lacroix

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers

In the early years after the National Hockey League's 1967 expansion, the Philadelphia Flyers' franchise had to search high and low for offensively gifted players. Few such talents were available through the expansion draft and it would take several years to develop a first-rate farm system and scouting staff. As a result, any young player with scoring punch was a welcomed addition to the club.

Andre Lacroix, an undersized center from Quebec, made the most of his chance to play in the NHL and became the Flyers' most dangerous offensive player during the team's first four years of existence. After moving from the NHL to the fledgling World Hockey Association, he went on to become WHA's all-time leading scorer.

"Andy had a lot of finesse on the ice. He was a little guy but he was a great passer and stickhandler," said Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Joe Watson. "He was also a good guy off the ice."

Lacroix had two strikes against him as a player. Standing just 5'8'' tall and playing between 170 to 175 pounds, he also lacked speed. Lacroix had to rely on his creativity and soft hands to overcome his physical limitations. His top-notch playmaking skills on the ice earned him the nickname "The Magician."

Crowded Houses

Andre Joseph Lacroix was born in Lauzon, Quebec, on June 5, 1945. The youngest of 14 children, Andre was the only member of the Lacroix clan to take up ice hockey. His father worked both day and evening jobs to support the family.

As with most future NHL players, he became smitten by hockey as a small child. In the winter, he would put on his skates at home early in the morning and trudge through the snow to an outdoor rink, with his school books and boots strapped to his back. After school, he headed right back to the rink before coming home.

On a typical day, Andre's father would already be at work when Andre left for school and then be at his other job when Andre got home. In the evening, Andre's mom would send him or one of his siblings to bring their father dinner from home. They'd ride the bus, deliver him his meal, and then ride back home. Whenever possible, though, his father took a little time off from work to come and watch Andre's hockey games.

Despite being the one of smallest forwards on the ice in many of his games, Andre (who stood about 5'5'' and weighed 150 pounds before a late teenage growth spurt) was a standout center for the Montreal Junior Canadiens. Playing on a team with future NHLers such as Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Andre Boudrias and goaltender Rogie Vachon, Lacroix was just one of a host of gifted players.

After the 1963-64 season, Lacroix journeyed to Ontario to join the Peterborough Petes. The move took him out of the Canadiens domain, but meant increased ice time. Lacroix easily led the third-place club in scoring with 119 points his first season, and tallied 120 points the next year. Both seasons, he led the OHA in assists. In 1966-67, he became a full-time member of the AHL's Quebec Aces.

Quick Impact in Quebec and Philadelphia

Andre Lacroix only spent one and a half seasons in Quebec, but he was so popular that he was sometimes called "the King of Quebec City." The home crowds at Le Colisée de Québec adored Lacroix's puckhandling and passing wizardry.

When the newly created Philadelphia Flyers purchased the Aces as its farm team on May 8, 1967, the club also acquired the player's NHL rights. Although Lacroix did not crack coach Keith Allen's roster at the start of the 1967-68 season, the Flyers took notice of Lacroix's play with the Aces. It would've been hard not to, as Lacroix racked up 87 points (41 goals, 46 assists) in just 54 games.

Lacroix made his NHL debut for the Flyers on February 21 in Pittsburgh. With the Flyers trailing the Penguins 1-0 in the second period and being badly outshot, Lacroix stole the puck from a Penguin and scored his first NHL goal on a backhand shot past goaltender Les Binkley. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

The next day, the Flyers played at home against the Minnesota North Stars. Lacroix put on a dazzling display for the 14,392 fans at the Spectrum. Playing on a line with Leon Rochefort and Brit Selby, Lacroix set up a Rochefort goal late in the first period and then scored in the final minute of the period to give the Flyers a 3-1 lead.

In the middle stanza, Lacroix brought the crowd to its feet by stickhandling around three Minnesota players on a rush up the ice. Midway through the period, he dished to Rochefort for another goal. Late in the period, Lacroix set up Rochefort yet again to complete a hat trick. All four of the line's goals were scored at even strength.

At the conclusion of the game, Lacroix was named the first star (Rochefort was second star). Lacroix earned one of the first standing ovations received by a Flyers player at the Spectrum.

In the next day's Philadelphia Bulletin, there was an open letter to Quebec coach Stasiuk saying Philadelphia would be keeping his best player for the rest of the season and opining that Lacroix was "already more popular than William Penn" in the City of Brotherly Love.

Amidst the hoopla, Flyers coach Keith Allen and general manager Bud Poile pulled Lacroix aside to remind him that things wouldn't always go so smoothly. The level headed French-Canadian center assured his bosses that he knew one magical night didn't make a career.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, a chunk of the Spectrum roof blew off during an Ice Capades performance on March 1, 1968, forcing the club to play the rest of its home games away from Philadelphia. The Flyers played "home" games in Madison Square Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens and–much to the delight of Lacroix's Quebec City fans – Le Colisée.

Lacroix finished the 1967-68 season with six goals and 14 points in 18 games for the Flyers. His top performance came on March 17, when he brought the crowd to its feet with a spectacular late third period goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coupled with goaltender Bernie Parent's 44-save performance, the Flyers' stunned the Leafs.

The Flyers won the Western Division in their first season of existence but lost to St. Louis in a brutal seven-game series. Lacroix registered five points in the series. On April 11, 1968, Lacroix scored the first goal of the game against Hall of Fame keeper Glenn Hall just 2:26 after the opening faceoff. The Blues stormed back, though, and won 5-2. In game six of the series, Lacorix scored the Flyers lone goal during regulation and Parent turned back an extraordinary 63 of 64 shots. The Flyers prevailed in double overtime on a Don Blackburn goal.

Skill and Grace

Lacroix and Parent developed a friendship off the ice and were both well-liked among their English-speaking teammates. On team bus rides, Parent and Lacroix often jabbed one another and broke out in laughter, prompting teammates to ask what was so funny.

"Don't ask me. He makes no sense in French, either," Lacroix deadpanned when teammates inquired what Parent had just said. His face would then break into a warm smile and everyone would laugh.

The Flyers slipped to third place in the Western Conference in 1968-69, with a 20-35-21 record. The club's biggest problem was lack of scoring. The Flyers scored just 174 goals during the 76-game regular season.

Lacroix did what he could to trigger the attack, but opponents recognized the team only had one offensively dangerous line. If Lacroix's line with left wing Jean-Guy Gendron and right wing Dick Sarrazin didn't carry the offense, chances were the Flyers wouldn't muster many scoring chances. Lacroix led the Flyers with 24 goals, including a club-high 13 power play markers and 56 points, while missing just one regular season game (the season opener). Linemates Gendron and Sarrazin were second and third on the team in points.

As might be expected, Lacroix had a streaky offensive season. After registering just one point (an assist) in the first six games, he had a pair of goals and six points in the next three games. Over the next 17 tilts, Lacroix failed to score and had just three assists. But he caught fire shortly after the new year and was only blanked in back-to-back games three times over the remainder of the season. His hottest run came in early March, when he exploded for five goals and 10 points over a five-game stretch.

In the playoffs, the undersized Flyers were brutalized in a four-game sweep at the hands of the rough-and-tumble St. Louis Blues; a series that triggered the genesis of the Broad Street Bullies, as Ed Snider vowed to add toughness to the club. Lacroix, unfortunately, was rendered ineffective by the Blues, going pointless in the series.

In 1969-70, a rookie center by the name of Bobby Clarke joined the Flyers. Lacroix, now playing with Gendron and Simon Nolet, remained the team's top offensive player. Once again, Lacroix paced the Flyers in points (58), and power play goals (6). He also dished out a club-leading 36 assists.

The Flyers stumbled out of the gate in 1969-70, getting blanked 4-0 by the Minnesota North Stars on opening night and then coughing up a 3-1 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins to settle for a tie. But Lacroix helped the team temporarily right its ship, registering a nifty assist in a 1-1 tie against the mighty Canadiens and scoring a hat trick in a 4-3 road win in Toronto. In December, Lacroix once again worked his magic against the Maple Leafs, tallying another hat trick and an assist in a 6-3 win at the Spectrum.

But 1969-70 season went much like the previous season. The Flyers were marginally better offensively, scoring 197 goals, but had a hard time rallying from behind. The team finished in fifth place with a 17-35-24 record and missed the playoffs.

Clarke assumed a bigger role in his second season and quickly usurped Lacroix as the Flyers' top center. With 1967 first-round draft pick Serge Bernier having a breakthrough season, Lacroix's importance to the team diminished over the course of the year. Nevertheless, he dressed in all 78 regular season games, scoring 20 goals and 22 assists for 44 points. His best performances once again came at the Maple Leafs' expense, including a two-goal game on October 18.

The Flyers improved to 28-33-17, good enough for third place and a return to the playoffs. Philly was swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in the first round of the playoffs. In what proved to be his final games as a Flyer, Lacroix had a pair of assists in the series. In October 1971, the Flyers dealt Lacroix to the Blackhawks in exchange for offensive defenseman Rick Foley.

WHA Legend

Lacroix's tenure with the Blackhawks was short and unhappy. After starting out the 1971-72 season on a line with Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, Lacroix ended up in coach Billy Reay's doghouse. Unable to get in synch with the Golden Jet, Lacroix quickly found himself demoted to the third and fourth line and eventually to the scratch sheet.

"Just my luck. I have the only French player in the league who can't skate," Reay told reporters in November of 1971.

As happy as he'd been in Philadelphia, Lacroix was miserable in Chicago. He scored just four goals and 11 points in 51 games of limited ice time. After the season, Lacroix and the Hawks parted ways and Lacroix promptly returned to Philadelphia – this time in the uniform of the new Philadelphia Blazers of the WHA, where he rejoined old friend and teammate Bernie Parent.

"The Blazers were a badly run organization, but we had some talented players," recalls Nick Polano, a Blazers defenseman who later went on to be the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings and is now a pro scout for the Ottawa Senators. "Andre Lacroix had a lot of skill and worked hard for the team every night."

Entering the 1972-73 season, the Blazers star attraction was flamboyant former Bruins forward Derek Sanderson and goaltender Parent. Although the season proved to be a comedy of errors for the Blazers– and the controversial Sanderson lasted all of eight games with the team – it marked a wonderful new beginning for Lacroix.

The WHA style was a lot more wide open than the NHL game, allowing Lacroix more operating room in the offensive zone. While with the Blazers, Lacroix won his first of two Bill Hunter Trophies as the WHA's leading scorer, totaling 50 goals, 74 assists and 124 points in 78 games. After the season, the Blazers were sold and the team relocated to Vancouver.

Lacroix moved north up the Jersey turnpike in 1973-74 to play for the New York Golden Blades (soon to be relocated to Cherry Hill and renamed the New Jersey Knights). Playing their home games at the Cherry Hill Arena, the Knights finished last in the WHA's Eastern Division. As with the Blazers, the Knights players were sometimes paid late and morale was low. But Lacroix continued to shine on the ice, scoring 31 goals and 80 assists (tops in the league) for 111 points in 78 games. After the season, he played for Team Canada in the WHA's 1974 WHA Summit Series with Russia. He was the second-leading point getter on the squad with seven points in eight games.

In 1974-75, Lacroix's former Flyers teammates celebrated their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the Knights relocated to San Diego and became known as the Mariners. Lacroix loved his new home on the West Coast and enjoyed the most remarkable season of his career.

That year, he won his second Hunter Trophy with 147 points and compiled an astounding 106 assists. At the time, it set a new professional hockey record (subsequently shattered by Wayne Gretzky, who reached as many as 163 helpers) and made Lacroix the first pro player after Bobby Orr to reach the 100-assist mark in a single season.

During his hottest stretch of the season, Lacroix registered points in 32 straight games. Over that stretch, Lacroix racked up 69 points (16 goals and 53 assists). On his way to the record, Lacroix set a separate WHA mark for most consecutive games with an assist. From January 18 to February 24, 1975, he set up at least one teammate for a goal in 16 straight games.

During the 32-game point streak, Lacroix really had one close call to having it end. Playing against the Houston Aeros seven games into the streak, Lacroix was held off the scoreboard for the first 59 minutes and 49 seconds. With 11 seconds left, Lacroix set up the game-tying goal and then he assisted on the winner in overtime.

Lacroix's Mariners linemates Wayne Rivers and Rick Sentes benefited greatly from their center's torrid streak. In early January, Rivers had 22 goals and 15 assists while Sentes had only 6 goals and 17 assists. When Lacroix's streak finally ended in March, Rivers had picked up 50 additional points (27 goals and 23 assists), while Sentes tallied 43 points (25 goals and 18 assists). Finally, the Chicago Cougars, behind the goaltending of Dave Dryden, ended the run on March 20, 1975.

"I really wasn't aware of the streak until I started reading about it in the papers," said Lacroix the following year. "I was more concerned with our team winning."

Lacroix followed up his career year by scoring over 100 points the next two seasons with the Mariners, with 101 points (72 assists) in 1975-76 and 114 points (82 assists) in 1976-77. The financially-strapped Mariners' franchise folded after the 1976-77 campaign. The 32-year-old Lacroix then signed on with the Houston Aeros. Lacroix enjoyed yet another stellar season in 1977-78, with 77 assists and 113 points.

The 1978-79 season marked the final year of the WHA's existence. Lacroix made it count, joining a New England Whalers team that also featured hockey legend Gordie Howe, his burgeoning superstar son Mark and older son Marty.

"Andy Lacroix was a legend in the WHA by that point but we had an excellent young center in Mike Rogers. Lacroix helped pass the torch," said Mark Howe.

While slowly giving way to Rogers, Lacroix was second in scoring on the club to Mark Howe. Lacroix tallied 32 goals and 56 assists for 88 points in 76 games. In the playoffs, he scored four goals and eight points in 10 games, as the Whalers lost to the Edmonton Oilers in an exciting seven-game semifinal series.

In his seven seasons in the WHA, Lacroix became the league's all-time leading point getter (798 points – 132 more than runner-up Marc Tardiff) and most profilic playmaker (547 career assists– leading J.C. Tremblay by 189 helpers). He ranked fourth on the league's all-time goal scoring chart with 251.

The New England Whalers were absorbed into the NHL after the 1979 merger, and renamed the Hartford Whalers. Now 34, Lacroix returned to the NHL for the first time since 1971-72. He concluded his pro career with 29 games for the Whalers in 1979-80, scoring three goals and assisting on 14 others for 17 points.

Staying Close to the Rink

After his retirement in 1980, Lacroix launched a career as an entrepreneur, most notably as an investor and consultant on a host of rink-building and hockey league development projects in non-traditional hockey markets in the USA. The 14-year hockey pro also coached in several in-house hockey leagues and conducted beginner hockey classes for both adults and kids.

In 1993, Lacroix brought his hockey-building knowledge to Oakland, CA where he worked for 11 years as a consultant and the director of hockey programs for the Oakland Ice Center (OIC).

As a representative for the OIC, Lacroix successfully lobbied the city government to support the development of hockey programs in the area. He also secured private funding to help build adult and youth hockey programs that are now thriving. Most notably, he grew the Oakland county youth program to over 200 players and grew the adult league from 12 teams to 62 teams with over 900 players. Currently, Lacroix serves as the general manager and director of hockey programs for The Pond Ice Rink in Auburn Township, Ohio.

During his active career, Lacroix was a tireless participant in team charity drives. That community involvement has continued in retirement. Lacroix founded the Andre Lacroix Foundation for Giving which helps raise money for disabled children. At various times, he has served on local boards and as chairman for a host of charitable organizations in California and Ohio, including Easter Seals, the Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse in Sports, the Skate-a-Thon for American Diabetes and A Better Way, Inc., an organization that provides education and positive recreational outlets for teens at risk for street gang involvement.

Lacroix now makes his primary residence in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In his spare time, he tries to spend as much time as possible with his two grandchildren.
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