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 Andr� 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.