The first time I heard the name ‘Andre Lacroix’ was during a radio interview about a new book detailing the short history of the World Hockey Association.
Much like the public’s memories of the WHA, I can’t recall when I heard the interview, what station it was on or even the name (or author) of the book. I do remember I was driving.
Rival leagues that eventually burn out face a fate similar to countries that lose a war.
It’s not that the victor (in this case the NHL over the WHA) has written the history, it’s that it has allowed that history to be forgotten.
Which is why I had not heard of Andre Lacroix, a five-foot eight-inch cetreman.
Unlike the NFL (which also merged with its main competitor the AFL), the NHL-WHA battle of the 1970s has resulted in the whitewashing of an entire decade of hockey.
Which brings me to a radio interview I was half-paying attention to a few years ago while driving. While WHA history is perhaps fascinating, it has little relevance today. Or, at least I thought.
At one point, the discussion turned to Andre Lacroix, who the interviewee considered to be not just the best player in the WHA, but perhaps among the best players to ever play the game. However, because the majority of Lacroix’s career was spent in the WHA, he never received the due of his NHL contemporaries.
And if you’re wondering why I’m even bothering to tell you about arguably the best player in a league that has been dead for decades, it’s what came next that made me almost pull the car over.
Lacroix played his junior career with the Peterborough Petes.
Yep, a player they were arguing should be considered among the all-time greats is a Peterborough Pete alum.
Up until that day, I had never heard of Lacroix. I’m sure others have, or some may remember the name but not his on-ice contributions for the Petes. Or what he did after. (Or, as my colleague Paul Rellinger noted offhand ‘a hell of a player.’)
That’s understandable. He played in the WHA, which means the NHL ignores him and his career stats. And in turn, whenever the Petes and their allies talk about the greats who once donned the maroon and white, no one mentions Lacroix.
The victors write the history. And the WHA is a history few want to write about.
So I went and took a look at his stats. And Paul was right, Lacroix was one hell of a player.
Let’s start with his time as a Pete. He played two seasons with the club (1964-’65 and ’65-’66) and compiled numbers that is arguably the greatest of any Pete.
You put his numbers up against anyone else in the team’s five-decade run and he stands above them all.
In 97 games he had 85 goals, 154 assists for 239 points. He had 119 points the first year (45 goals and 74 assists) and 120 points the second year (40 goals and 80 assists).
In both years, he was named the league’s most outstanding player. He won the scoring race in ’65-66.
How good was he in comparison to all other Petes? It’s not even close.
His 2.64 points per game (PPG) is the best of any player in Petes’ history.
Think about that for a second. For a team that has sent more players to the NHL than any other junior franchise, he had the best PPG of them all. And there wasn’t anyone who even came close to touching him.
We will ignore second-place Graehme Bonnar (who only played 18 games of the Petes) and focus on two players tied for third — current NHLer Steve Downie and former NHLer Mike Ricci. Downie and Ricci had a point per game rate of 1.758. Ricci’s is a bit more impressive considering the greater number of games played.
Mike Harding (who dominated the OHL during his tenure) had a career PPG rate of 1.506. Steve Yzerman? In his 114 games with the Petes, he had PPG of 1.36, more than a point below Lacroix.
(As for Lacroix, he played 34 games for the Montreal Junior Canadiens in the season before coming to Peterborough, so his career PPG in the OHL is still a very impressive 2.05).
Of course, it’s difficult to compare players of different eras. For example, hockey in the 1980s was big on goals and little else.
So, I decided to take a look at his numbers in comparison to his contemporaries. And you know what? I can’t find anyone who even comes close to matching his output at that time.
Even Bobby Orr — who played three seasons for the Oshawa Generals (1963-66) — had a PPG rate of 1.62 (259 points in 159 games). That’s remarkable for a defenceman, but still off of what Lacroix put up.
I had to go to Marcel Dionne and his 2.53 PPG from ’68 to ’71 to find anyone he is close to.
(Guy Lafleur did post an outstanding 3.21 PPG in the Quebec junior league from ’69 to ’71, but I was comparing Lacroix against fellow OHL players).
To put Lacroix’s 2.64 PPG in perspective, Wayne Gretzky played one OHL season and averaged 2.76 PPG. Mario Lemieux averaged 2.81 PPG over three seasons. Sidney Crosby? 2.5 PPG.
That’s not to say that Lacroix should be in the same conversation as Dionne or Gretzky or Lemieux or Lafleur. But he is sure damn close.
Here’s the thing, after such a powerful OHL career, you would think a team would have taken a chance on him. Nope. He went undrafted.
He did catch on with the AHL’s Quebec Aces and in the AHL, he continued to produce.
In the AHL, Lacroix had a strong rookie campaign (25 goals and 49 points in 67 games) but really broke out his second year, 1967-68, with 41 goals and 87 points in just 54 games.
He was called up to the NHL that year, playing 18 games for the Philadelphia Flyers and scoring 14 points.
He remained in the NHL for the next four years. During that time, he proved himself as an effective player, netting 20 or more goals in three straight seasons.
His best year in the NHL was his first and, as Lacroix explained to the Greatest Hockey Legends website, he centred the top line that season. He had 24 goals and 56 points. If history is any judge, that should have been the beginning of much more.
But it wasn’t. The Flyers, looking to transform into tougher, bigger club, eventually got rid of Lacroix (and considering they would win two Stanley Cups as the Broad Street Bullies, one can’t fault them for the decision).
His fourth year in the NHL (which was also his last until 1979), saw him play sparingly for the Chicago Blackhawks and his stats dropped. He had four goals and 11 points in 51 games and has said he was rarely used in a system not suited to his skills.
One could argue that was because the Blackhawks made the proper choice and had better players on the depth chart to Lacroix. But this was the Blackhawks of the late 1960s-early 1970s and they made some very bad decisions at that time.
Don’t believe me? Here are the three biggest:
1) They dealt Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge to Boston and received little in return.
2) Their mishandling of Bobby Hull saw the sniper sign with the upstart WHA.
3) They let Andre Lacroix fly to the WHA.
Lacroix signed with the Philadelphia Blazers in ’72 and he dominated.
In his first year (1972-73) he had 50 goals and 124 points. He cracked the 100-point mark for six straight years (’72 to ’78), playing for Philadelphia, New York, San Diego, Houston and New England Whalers. He is the all-time leading scorer in WHA history and fourth all-time in goals scored.
It’s easy to look back and say his accomplishments were only a result of the inferior competition that he played against in the WHA. Or that he played in a league with a wide-open style.
It’s easy to dismiss his ability and claim that if he played his entire career in the NHL he would need have come close to such numbers. Which could be true.
But, there are a few facts that get in the way.
1) Only four players in the history of professional hockey have ever had more than 100 assists in one season.
They are Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and … Andre Lacroix. He had 106 assists in a 147-point campaign in the 1974-75 season. That was a new record in professional hockey, topping the mark set by Orr in 1970-71.
2) If the WHA was ripe for highly-offensive players to pad their stats, why is Lacroix the only one to achieve a feat so remarkably rare?
He has more assists and points than anyone else in the WHA and it’s not even close (798 points in 551 games, good enough for 1.45 PPG, which is also fourth best in league history). You would think others would have put up similar numbers. Or someone else would have cracked the 100-assist mark beside him.
3) When an 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky was entering the NHL, there were some who said his success in the WHA as a rookie could never translate into an NHL with bigger, tougher and more talented players. We all know how that ended.
There are some blemishes on Lacroix’s career.
He was a member of Canada’s 1974 Summit Series team that lost to the Soviet Union. He was Canada’s second-leading scorer, but it was still a disappointing performance by a Canadian team made up of WHA players.
He never truly had success when he played in the NHL (198 points in 325 games). That will always hang over him, even though who knows what he could have accomplished during the prime of his career.
His nickname was ‘The Magician,’ which at first sounds kind of cool but after thinking about it for a few minutes you realize it somewhat diminishes him.
And he played for a league that put together packages like this:
But … the WHA argument works both ways. While the NHL may have decided to wipe the competing hockey league out of hockey history, we don’t have to.
So while it’s easy for us to look back and say, ‘Well, Lacroix competed in a water downed league,’ we should probably hold the same standards to those who played in the NHL at the same time, itself also a water-downed league during the WHA’s tenure.
The WHA ran from 1972 to ’79. During its first year, 67 players jumped from the NHL to WHA. This also came just a few years after the NHL expansion, which saw the league double in size.
It’s easy to dismiss the accomplishments of a player in the WHA. But perhaps we should also turn a critical eye to the accomplishments of those who toiled in the NHL during that same period. After all, they were competing in a league that suddenly jumped from six to 12 to 14 to 18 teams. They were competing in a league that saw some of their biggest stars (Bobby Hull, anyone) jump ship.
The WHA also diid something to bolster its talent. It signed Europeans, a move the NHL hadn’t bothered to do.
So, does that mean those two Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup wins come with an asterisk? Should the Montreal Canadiens dynasty in the late ’70s be looked at differently?
Probably not. But that doesn’t mean those in Peterborough can’t remember a former Pete who dominated a league and maybe, if his pro career began in 1975 instead of ’65, would considered among the best to ever play.
Which brings me back to the initial question: who is the greatest Pete of all time? Lacroix can never win that contest simply because he never had an NHL career for everyone to pump up. But if you consider his time with the team, what he was able to accomplish and how his OHL career compares to others in his time period, it’s pretty clear he should win hands down.