January 12, 2009
While the WHA paled in quality comparisons to the NHL, it has a certain intrigue about it. After all, the WHA raided NHL and junior rosters and boasted names like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson among many others.
But it was André Lacroix who may very well be considered the best player during the WHA's 7 year existence.
At 5'8" 175lbs, André was too small for the NHL game. However his immense skill level earned him a full time spot with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1968. André was a shifty skater with good speed. His vision of the ice and playmaking abilities placed him among the game's elite in those two categories. Simply put, André's style of play was Gretzky-like. His stick handling ability was awesome.
A graduate of the Peterborough Petes, the Lauzon, Quebec native scored 85 goals and 154 assists in just 97 games with the Petes. Never drafted by an NHL team, most likely because of his diminutive size, André signed with the AHL's Quebec Aces where he learned to play the professional game. He was on a torrid pace in his second season with the Aces, who were purchased along with all their players by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1967. With 87 points (41+46) in 54 games and an AHL record six hat tricks André was called up by the Flyers to finish the season in the NHL. He scored 6 goals and 8 assists in 18 regular season games. He also appeared in 7 playoff games.
André earned a full time NHL job the following training camp. He would play three full seasons with the Flyers, scoring more than 20 goals in each season. But his size eventually limited him to the role of power play specialist. He centered the team's #1 line in year one. The line was called the French Line, with Jean-Guy Gendron on left wing and first Dick Sarrazin and then Simon Nolet on right wing. The line was small and fast, and André in particular became a fan favorite. However after the team's playoff failure management decided to go in another direction, drafting bigger and stronger players from the western Canadian prairies, building an image that would soon be known as the Broad Street Bullies.
"We had a defensive team then," André remembered. "We were always going for the tie. In fact, we set the NHL record for ties (24) that one year (1969-70). I guess Vic Stasiuk (Philly's coach) just didn't like my style of play. He probably wanted a rough-tough guy and I just wasn't that type of player."
André's role was reduced and then eliminated. André, who obviously didn't fit into the Flyer's "Broad Street Bullies" system, was dealt to Chicago in exchange for gigantic though marginal NHL defenseman Rick Foley. The overweight Foley quickly found his place in the minors.
André Lacroix bombed in the Windy City. He never fit into their system either, and was used sparingly. He scored only 4 goals and 7 assists in 51 games.
"With the Black Hawks, everybody had been there seven or eight years and it was hard to break in," André said.
Following his terrible 1971-72 season, André moved back to Philadelphia, but this time it was with the WHA's Blazers. He became an instant star in the WHA's first season, scoring 50 goals and 74 assists for 124 points - earning him the Hunter Trophy as leading score and the Davidson Trophy as the league's first MVP.
"It never mattered how good you were, confidence was 60 percent of the game. If the coach didn't have the confidence to put you on the ice, you didn't do well."
André set a then-professional record of 106 assists in the 1974-75 season while with the San Diego Mariners. His 106 assists bettered Bobby Orr's 102 assist season of 1970-71. He also added 41 goals to again win the Hunter Trophy.
André played with 5 WHA teams in 7 years, playing 551 games. His 574 assists are a league high, almost 200 more than second place J.C. Tremblay. André's 251 goals ranks 4th all time, giving him a league leading 798 WHA points, ahead of second place Marc Tardif by 132 points, and 160 points more than Bobby Hull.
"For sure, we played wide-open hockey in the WHA but that's what the fans wanted to see," André said years later.
After the collapse of the WHA, André was protected by the New England Whalers as they joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers. He would only play part of the 1979-80 season, appearing in 29 games and scoring 3 goals and 17 points. That upped his NHL totals to 325 games, 79 goals, 119 assists along with 44 penalty minutes.
While a player André and former Flyers teammate Ed van Impe were partners in a $ 600,000 facility in Radnor,PA (a skating rink) where they held hockey schools, public skating and minor league hockey games.
After his playing career was over he did some color commentary and was the Director of hockey operations at the Oakland Ice Center.