"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."