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Frei column: Honoring Pierre Lacroix, the Architect

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With Pierre Lacroix’s family watching from the carpet placed over the ice, the “Architect” banner honoring him and his accomplishments in the Avalanche front office was raised to the rafters Saturday night, before Colorado’s game against the Blues.

The family contingent included, but was not limited to, wife Coco and sons Eric — the former NHL and Avalanche winger — and Marty.

The half-hour ceremony started more than an hour before the game, and it was unfortunate that the crowd watching was small. It was better when the NHL allowed such ceremonies to be held after the warmup and closer to game-time, as was the case with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg’s number retirements in earlier years. Here is Foppa on the far right tonight, with Eric Lacroix in the middle and Adam Foote to the left.

Why the fuss over Pierre Lacroix?

One of the most underplayed aspect of the Avalanche’s success in this market is that it came not that long after the NHL’s Colorado Rockies were a resounding failure in their six seasons in Denver, with on-ice pratfalls and management and ownership instability and ineptitude.

Attendance was mostly abysmal — despite the fact that 342,854 now claim to have been Rockies regulars, paying the exorbitant price of $14 for the top ticket. On the ice (albeit in the tie era), the most games they won in a single season was 22 — and they made the playoffs only once, losing both games of a mini-series against the Flyers in 1978.

The Rockies fled for New Jersey in 1982.

The Avalanche left Quebec and brought the NHL back to Denver in 1995.

That’s only a 13-year gap — far from an eternity.

Think of 2008 now. Thirteen years ago. Doesn’t it seem like … OK, not yesterday, but only 13 years ago.

The Avalanche came in and were an immediate success, starting a nearly 11-year, 487-game sellout streak early in the first season, thanks to the market perception that this was a fine, young team on the rise.

It was the team that Lacroix, on the job for a year at the time, was continuing to build three years after the 1992 Eric Lindros trade under GM Pierre Page was pivotal in adding to the foundation. The Nordiques ended up acquiring Steve Duchesne, Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci and Chris Simon, plus two draft picks and $15 million.

But the point is, and was, that none of this success was automatic.

Lacroix, with his sense of perfectionism, kept plugging away and building. With the trade of Owen Nolan for the blue-line catalyst, Sandis Ozolinsh, the wandering Latvian. With the acquisition of his former client, Patrick Roy. And so much more.

Had the Avalanche been disappointing, had Lacroix been anything but savvy in shepherding the franchise in his tenure as GM from 1995-2006, the sellout streak would have been short-lived. Instead, with Lacroix making shrewd moves while operating under cash-poor ownerships until Stan Kroenke took over in 2000, the Avalanche turned this into a hockey town.

Actually, working through ownership challenges and revolving-door instability in the first few years is something else for which Lacroix doesn’t get enough credit. He took a situation there that seemed almost Rockies-esque and managed to keep winning.

Rinks went up. Youth and adult hockey exploded. The University of Denver Pioneers soon had Coloradans on their roster. While this remained first and foremost a Broncos town, the pool of Avalanche fans expanded perhaps even exponentially during the 11 years of his tenure. The crowd at the Civic Center after the 1996 championship was part of a happening; the one after the 2001 Stanley Cup win far more was made up of devotees and knowledgeable hockey fans.

With significant health problems along the way, Pierre stepped away from the GM role in 2006, focused on being team president until 2013, then was an advisor.

He was missed.

Crystal Ball Bonus!

And that was just the hockey part.

Then came the shocking word of his death in the Las Vegas area.

Here’s what I wrote when he passed away in December 2020.

And here’s what I wrote later, after his Celebration of Life memorial gathering in June 2021. Adrian Dater, Sandy Clough and I were among the few media members invited, and I’m sorry, it doesn’t embarrass me one bit to say I’m proud of it.

We all had our arguments with Pierre — boy, did we ever — so it wasn’t a case of abdicating professionalism and responsibility, but  of mutual respect.

In my remembrance after he died, I told how he and team exec Jean Martineau came to my father’s memorial celebration in early 2001 and found themselves among many football figures. (My dad, Jerry, was a long-time college coach and NFL coach, scout and administrator.) When I thanked Pierre for coming, he said, “At times like these, we’re all family.” 

Earlier this week, I asked Sakic, now the Avalanche’s executive vice president and general manager, about Pierre and the imminent banner ceremony.

“It’s unfortunate,” Sakic said. “We miss Pierre. He is one of the best GMs ever in this sport. I remember meeting him the first time in Quebec. You knew. He knew what he wanted. He just wanted to win. He did everything he could to give us an opportunity to win. He was an unbelievable human being, cared about everybody, loved people and loved winning. He’s a guy you could call anytime and get advice from and he’d help you out in any situation. He’s sorely missed and that night, to have the banner raised, it’s going to be in the rightful place.”

A handful of former Avalanche players attended the ceremony, including Forsberg, Adam Foote, Milan Hejduk and Ray Bourque. The players made the rounds of Jumbotron and Altitude appearances, and Foote and Forsberg met the media after the first period.

I asked Forsberg and Foote the first memories of Lacroix that popped in their heads. Significantly, they were honoring the man who told them both after the 2004-05 lockout season and implementation of the salary cap that the Avalanche couldn’t re-sign them. (They both later returned.)

“It’s so many things,” Forsberg said. “Memories are coming back. I have to say he put the team together in such a different ownership, but he kept the quality of the team together for such a long time. I think most of it is he was just so nice to me throughout my career. Off the ice, (it was) unbelievable. For me, it was very emotional today because I wasn’t here in the summer and they had a little ceremony. This was the first time I could fly over. So it’s tough. I miss him. He’s so worthy of being up there, not only for hockey, but outside hockey, too. He brought the whole ice hockey thing to Colorado.

“It was cool to be able to stand with the family and the other players on the ice when the banner went up to the rafters.

Later, Forsberg mentioned that after he suffered in ruptured spleen in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against Los Angeles in 2001, he brought up trying to play later in the Stanley Cup finals against New Jersey. But he said Pierre would have none of that.

“He’s like, ‘No, no, no, I care about your life. If we win or not in the next game, I don’t really care if we win the Stanley Cup, as long as you’re healthy. That’s all we care about,'” Forsberg said. “So it was not only about winning. It was about life on the side, too.”

Foote’s memories?

“We all know the records and consecutive sellouts,” Foote said. “But I think what made him special for me and all of our group — something Pete’s touched on — is Coco and PIerre were the first ones who walked in when we had our first child, right? When one of our kids got sick, they were the first ones there. He really cared and when you hear about family, we all experienced it as we were able to play for him. It almost gave us an extra push, I think, because you didn’t want to let him down. He was that presence. There was something there. I don’t think I understood it then, at the time when I played, but being retired and getting up there in age, you realize his presence.

“It mattered. You have a bunch of hockey players making money and having a great life, but you need that figure, that presence. . . I think we were all fortunate. He’s a real family man. He cared. And we all bought into it. It worked for so long. I wish he had been here to see it, but he deserves to be up there. I’m happy I was here tonight to experience it.”

It was a banner night — in more ways than one.

Terry Frei (terry@terryfrei.com) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html

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dp10

PL really made it look easy too. Sure he was fortunate to take over an absolute diamond in the rough, but he turned them into stylish winners. Many have wondered if the Avs shouldn’t have won perhaps couple more cups in that era. In ‘97 they won the President’s Trophy but they couldn’t hold off the Red Wings. In ‘99 and 2000, they couldn’t get past the Stars and again in 2002, they were up one game on the Red Wings and oh so close again. But tbh, I look fondly even at those deep playoff runs. Looking at our… Read more »

ricoflashback

Wonderful column.

slowpokeczech

Nice to have you and your words around here, Terry.

John Mauss

I was very fortunate to be in the rink for the ceremony and was moved far beyond what I expected. Thanks, Terry, for another good report. We are lucky to have you on this site.

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