Claude Lemieux knew a few wheelers and dealers by 1995, several years into an NHL playing career that by then had him on the move to Denver. Lemieux was used to being around brash, persuasive and confident people – himself being one. Then he met Pierre Lacroix.
“I loved everything about him, the minute I really got to know him. He just loved life. He believed in himself and he did things the way he believed. He was one of my favorite people on this planet,” Lemieux, the former Avalanche forward and four-time Stanley Cup winner, told Colorado Hockey Now this afternoon.
Lacroix, the Avalanche’s first general manager and architect of two Stanley Cup championships, passed away at age 72 today at his home in Lake Las Vegas, Nevada. Lacroix had been treated recently for COVID-19, a source close to the Lacroix family confirmed. He is survived by his son, former Avalanche player Eric Lacroix, another son, Martin, his wife, Colombe (Coco) and three grandchildren. My former colleague, Terry Frei, reported that Lacroix died from a heart attack this morning.
Pierre Lacroix was someone that, if you ever were in his orbit, you never forgot. A self-made man from humble beginnings, Lacroix rose from beer sales in the Montreal area to high-powered hockey player agent to even greater heights as an NHL general manager. His career was one of stunning success, including a record nine straight NHL division championships his first nine years on the job, with the Quebec Nordiques and Avalanche, from 1994-2003. For Lacroix, there was only one goal, which he said many times to anyone who would ask him:
“The ultimate goal,” Lacroix would say. “Our goal is to win the last game of the season.”
His Avalanche teams did that twice, in 1996 and 2001. The Avs’ Cup championship in 1995-96 was the first major pro title in Colorado sports history. His teams made it to at least the Western Conference finals in six of the first seven seasons in Denver. He pulled off some of the biggest blockbuster trades in NHL history, including the Patrick Roy deal with Montreal in 1995. He was a man unafraid of taking risk. He loved to wheel and deal, and only half-kiddingly said once that he had a hard time driving past a house with a “for sale” sign in the yard without wanting to knock on the door and negotiate a price.
Lacroix was a master of secrecy too, a master of misdirection and subterfuge. Even during his biggest blockbuster deals involving some of the biggest names in hockey history, Lacroix had a poker face that never gave anything away to the media. When Lemieux was acquired by the Avalanche in October of 1995, he never knew Lacroix had been hot on his trail. He soon became fascinated by the man he would soon affectionately call “Father Pete.”
He had a temper and those who crossed him would hear about it, sometimes loudly and profanely. But he never held a grudge, and was sweet and gentle around women, children, the elderly and anyone who might have had a strike or two against them in life. He absolutely loved kids, and he made it a firm and non-negotiable part of being an Avalanche player or staff person that giving back to the community, especially to under-privileged kids, was part of the job.
“I just loved listening to everything he had to say about life, about business, about family,” said Lemieux, who today is a player agent himself. “I just loved his commitment to his family. He was an amazing husband, an amazing father. He was a big teddy bear. He could be tough, but he was very sensitive down deep and he had a heart of gold. He did so many things for other people, less fortunate people, that never got any publicity, and he didn’t want any publicity for things like that.”
The Avalanche’s first owner, Charlie Lyons, told Colorado Hockey Now that Lacroix was such a close friend that he asked him to be the godfather to his own children.
“He was the ultimate family man,” Lyons said. “A lot of people pretend to be family men, but they’re not. He ran his business like a family. Hockey lost not only a generational leader, but an innovator. He was both. The Avalanche, all of the hockey world, all of Colorado, has to be devastated. Rest in peace, my brother.”
The bitter, ultimate irony about Lacroix’s life was that he had, in recent years, gotten back to robust, full health after some serious medical issues, including a bout with cancer. He was enjoying life in retirement, especially doting on his three grandchildren. He and Coco, in fact, spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the Boston area visiting grandson Max, who plays prep hockey there and currently is living in the home of Ray Bourque. Some time shortly after, however, Lacroix contracted the coronavirus. He was overcoming it, however, but on Sunday morning, Eric Lacroix said, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Whether that was connected to the virus or not is unclear.
“Eric (Lacroix) sent me a sweet text, letting me know, that he didn’t want to be in the hospital anymore,” Lemieux said. “I’m thankful I got to see him about a year and a half ago. We spent the day in together in Las Vegas, with our wives, and he was really doing great. I’m just very, very sad. It’s like I lost another father.”
Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic preferred not to comment when contacted by Colorado Hockey Now, but released this statement on behalf of him and the team:
“It is a sad day for the Avalanche organization and its fans. Pierre was a visionary and a true leader,” Sakic said. “From the moment he took over as GM, he established a winning culture that spread throughout the organization. As players, we knew he would do everything he could to help the team achieve that goal of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Pierre was instrumental in not only building the Avalanche into a championship team but also in the growth of hockey in Colorado. His footprint is everywhere in this hockey community. Pierre is someone I trusted very much right from the first time I met him. I’ll always remember him as not only a great GM but an even better person. He always treated everyone like family and he wanted us players to have that same mentality. He was a great example to all of us. Pierre was a mentor to me and someone I learned a lot about the business of hockey from. We as an organization and myself personally, will really miss him. On behalf of the Avalanche organization, we are sending our thoughts to Coco, Martin, Eric and the entire Lacroix family.”
Stan Kroenke, chairman and owner of Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, also issued the following statement:
“Pierre was truly a legend and one of the greatest executives in sports. He had a ‘team first’ mentality that valued players and staff equally and his winning attitude was immediately evident to our family when we acquired the Avalanche in 2000. Denver is considered one of the world’s towering sports cities and that would be impossible without Pierre’s many contributions, including leading the Avs to Colorado’s first major professional championship with the 1996 Stanley Cup title. Pierre had a unique zest for life that uplifted anyone who knew him. He treated everyone like they were a part of his family and was always available to anyone who needed his guidance. We will miss him greatly. On behalf of my family, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and the Avalanche organization, we extend our sincerest condolences to Coco, Martin and Eric, and Pierre’s three grandchildren.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also issued the following statement:
“Pierre Lacroix’s eye for talent, appreciation for elite-level athletes and fearlessness in pulling off the big trade made him one of the most successful team builders in recent NHL history. Fiercely competitive and personally engaging, he was highly regarded by his fellow General Managers and his voice was respected throughout the League.
“Following a successful career as a player agent, Lacroix became President and General Manager of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, shepherded the team’s relocation the following year and established the Colorado Avalanche as a model franchise while re-establishing the NHL in Denver.
“The teams Lacroix built won nine division titles in his first nine seasons as a general manager and captured the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001. Having represented such superstar Quebec players as Patrick Roy and Mike Bossy as an agent, Lacroix traded for Roy, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake as a GM to complete Avalanche teams with young mainstays such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, turning them into champions. The National Hockey League mourns his passing and sends our condolences to his wife, Colombe, their sons, Martin and Eric, and the entire Lacroix family.”
Iconic NHL coach Scotty Bowman told Colorado Hockey Now, “In 1976 in the Canada Cup tournament, he was our business manager and I got to work with him. Then, he was a player agent and when I was with the Buffalo Sabres and he represented our goalie, Bob Sauve. Pierre was a friendly man who later sold his agency to Bob Sauve. He built some great teams, starting in Quebec and continuing with the Avalanche.”