“How’s the boy?”
That’s the first thing Pierre Lacroix always asked me after Feb. 12, 2004, when my son was born. Absolutely, first thing. Every time. It didn’t matter if we were talking two days in a row or went a few months between talking. That’s always the first thing he said to me. For me and the many others who knew Pierre Lacroix, that encapsulates what he was all about. For him, it was all about family.
Pierre Lacroix was not in my family, and I was not in his. And yet, he made me feel like I was part of one. Despite being a member of the media covering the team in which he managed, a job that very often had competing interests against each other, Pierre still had a way of making you feel like you were part of a collective.
I suspect this stems from the fact that, in 1995, all of us were thrown together in this new thing called “The Colorado Avalanche.” Pierre, the players, the staff…everyone…had their lives uprooted to a place 2,000 miles and another country away. They knew nothing about Denver. Media people, like me and Rick Sadowski of the Rocky Mountain News, were some of the first people they ever met here. We were both assigned to cover this new NHL team and, unlike Rick who had at least a decade of reporting experience covering the L.A. Kings of the 1980s and ’90s for the Los Angele Daily News, I was the cub reporter newbie, with only a year of experience covering the Denver Grizzlies of the IHL and some DU hockey.
Both sides needed each other, especially in those pre-Internet, pre-cell-phone days. I had a lot to learn about…everything…with the business of pro hockey, and little did I know that for the next decade and more, I’d have the equivalent of Picasso as my art teacher. Boy, did I Iearn a lot from Pierre about hockey and business and the art of the deal. But in the day since learning of the terribly sad news of his passing, the thing I keep coming back to – the thing that might have been his greatest lesson to me and probably many others – was the importance of family.
My own memories of Pierre. Whew, let me try and stitch some together:
- In his office at the old McNichols Sports Arena, the first thing that he did was put up on enormous painting of him and his family. A smiling Pierre was surrounded by wife, Colombe (who everyone then and now calls “Coco”) and young sons, Eric and Martin. That painting would adorn his office for the rest of his days in Denver.
- The very first time I ever met Pierre – I think anyway – was in the media meal room at the old Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey, where I was covering the Devils-Red Wings Cup 1995 Finals. The Avs had just moved to Denver before that, and they still didn’t have a team name yet. Pierre was there for the series, as many hockey executives are, for other league business matters and such. Pierre came over to the table where Jim Benton, covering the series for the News, and I were sitting and talked excitedly of a new beginning in Denver. He peppered us with questions about the city, talked about how good he thought his young team would become and just seemed full of life. We were now part of his tribe, it seemed, and he really took an interest in not only what we did but who we were as people. I was a single, unmarried guy at the time and one thing I remember Pierre saying to me a few times in those days was “When are you gonna get married and start a family?” I was like, uh, Pierre, I need to find a woman to say yes to go on a date with me first. He thought it was hysterical.
- In those really early days, he and the Avs were so open and accommodating. He and the team insisted the beat writers fly with the team a lot in that first season, to better get to know each other. One day, he called Rick and me into his office where, on a white board, he outlined for us just what was going on in the negotiations for holdout forward Wendel Clark, and the differences between the Canadian dollar (which Clark’s contract was paid in) and the American dollar. We’d both been writing daily updates on the stalled negotiations, some of which included quotes from Clark’s agent, Don Meehan, which Pierre didn’t love. He might have been trying to spin us by inviting us in, but I remember thinking “Oh, how wonderful of this fine man to help us out like this.”
- It didn’t take long for some of that kumbaya feeling to dissipate. Being the smartass, cynical wiseguy I’ve always been – and was especially in those days – I earned Pierre’s wrath with a few of my observations in print on the team. The Avs were staying at a fancy resort in California in an early-season road trip – a place that had just seen Bill Gates stay there, in fact – a place where rooms went for about $300 a night. But the Avs played terrible in a loss to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and I wrote something like “After staying in their $300 a night resort, the Colorado Avalanche went out and gave a performance worth about $1.98 against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.” On the team plane the next night, a plate with a piece of cake and a little flag was delivered to me back in “coach.” The cake was a gift from Pierre, with “$1.98” written on the flag.
- Remember, Pierre was still pretty new to the job of GM and dealing with the media every day, and I think in those early days he was genuinely confused by the role of the American sports media. I’m not sure he quite realized that, while we could always get along well and be friends if you wanted, there had to a separation of “church and state”, if you will, about coverage of the team. He might have thought our job was to be just a mouthpiece for the team itself – keeping it all positive, of course – but that’s not how it’s supposed to work of course.
- That’s when things started to occasionally get pretty nasty between Pierre and the local press. Again, I don’t think Pierre ever was trying to hoodwink or con us with spin so much as he just may not have known the customs of the American press yet. But once he did, that’s when it became a little less about “family” and more of “Us versus them.” I don’t think we ever got invited into his office again, and after that first season, we were never on the team plane again.
- Oh my god, the 6 a.m. calls. Kids today don’t realize this, but the telephone used to be a much more terrifying thing than it is today. We had only landline phones then, and they rang loudly. And when they rang at 6 o’clock in morning, they jolted you awake and you didn’t know who was calling. When my phone rang at 6 a.m., however, I knew who was probably calling: Pierre. If Pierre saw something he didn’t like in the paper that I wrote, that phone rang at 6 a.m. “What is this (bleep) you write?”,” came the words, loudly, through the receiver. Before I could say anything, Pierre would go into a two or three-minute haranguing that would make your ears bleed. Then he’d hang up.
- But, ninety nine times out of a hundred, Pierre would never mention it again and be nothing but professionally courteous to you the next time you saw him. To his everlasting credit, too: he never played favorites with the media. He never tried to “get back” at you for something you wrote, by leaking something to your competitor. Never. Lots of GMs in pro sports do that, but Pierre never did.
- Coco was often around the arena, and we’d pass each other in the hall a lot. One thing I learned quickly: Coco Lacroix was to be treated with the utmost respect, lol. Omg, I’m sure I looked and sounded just like Eddie Haskell all the time around her. “My, what a lovely outfit you’re wearing Mrs. Cleaver!” To her everlasting credit, too, Coco never once said anything about any of us wrote, never tried to get in our face and rip us the way Pierre sometimes could. Could there be an icy stare? Maybe, but you just smiled and said hello. But she was and is a very nice person.
- Things also took a turn for the worse between Pierre and the press when things got rocky with Eric Lacroix’s time with the team. I’m not going to rehash all that here, but when it was clear that a change was necessary and Pierre traded him back to the L.A. Kings, there were definitely some really hard feelings with him to us.
- But that was what Pierre was all about in a nutshell: family. Sticking up for family. Being in his family’s corner. The love he had for his son was such that he wanted so badly for him to be with his professional family too. For a while, it looked like it might work (Eric Lacroix had a better season than people realize, in 1996-97). But it was just a bit too awkward a situation for everybody else. As Pierre came to realize, painfully probably, the concept of family can only go so far in the world of pro sports, where money and ego most often prevail.
- As the years went by, as we all learned more about each other and what we did, Pierre became more resigned that we could never be part of his true family. But I think a feeling of mutual respect gradually settled in more and more, and the days of serious blowups were over. Things became warmer again in the later years. I knew all of Pierre’s idiosyncrasies, and Pierre knew all of ours. He knew that while I wasn’t allowed to cheer for the Avs, I truly cared deeply about the team. I still do. When he saw that, he knew I wasn’t just some outsider.” Yeah, I may have been a version of the black sheep of the family, but I was still part of it somehow. When he stepped down as GM in 2006, I instantly started to miss him. His successor, Francois Giguere, was uncomfortable around the media, rarely saying more than a few words at a time. Pierre may not have told you much as a reporter, but he was always accessible and he was always interesting to talk to and be around.
- Pierre could read people so well. He had a way of looking right into your eyes and making you come clean about whatever it is he wanted to know. He knew if you were trying to BS him. No doubt, that’s what made him such a great negotiator and dealmaker. While he never told you much when it came to stuff we always wanted to know (trades, rumors, etc) he never BS’d you. If you were honest with him, he was honest with you. In a way, that’s another big thing he taught me, a kind of loyalty. He didn’t have to like you, but if he respected you, he was always that way in return. He was always loyal to his principles, which was something I came to greatly admire in him.
- When he moved off to the Las Vegas area with Coco, selling their condo in the Cherry Creek area, I only saw Pierre once every few years. The last time I hung out with him was, believe it or not, down in the lower bowl of the Pepsi Center for an Avs game. He was in town for some reason, and took in the game with Coco and another of their friends. It was so surreal just sitting there, hanging out with him for a period or so, watching the team that was his life for so long. We had a warm, nice talk and told lots of stories and laughed over some of the moments in which we might not have laughed much when they happened. I told him I genuinely missed him and thanked him for all the things he’d taught me in life. He was just as gracious in return, but when I got up to leave, he called out and said one more thing:’
- “Be good to that boy of yours.”
I will, Pierre. Rest in peace, my friend.