Charging ahead in red jerseys, black pants and red socks and with George Kingston as an assistant coach, there was already a slight Canadian feel to the Lithuania team that won the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B on home ice in Kaunas. With stakes now being raised for this season, Lithuania has turned to the home of hockey in their attempts to spring a surprise at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group A in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Montreal-born Lacroix made his debut as head coach of Lithuania's national team earlier this month at the Baltic Challenge Cup in Vilnius. Having worked as an assistant coach for eleven seasons in the NHL, the 49-year-old has never been one to shy away from a challenge. When the opportunity presented itself to work as head coach for the southernmost Baltic state, it was thanks to a friendship forged two decades earlier with the newly elected President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, Dainius Zubrus.
“Having played with Dainius made my decision easy. He called me at a time when I wasn't with an NHL team. I look at this challenge like a university teacher would. They take a sabbatical to resource and find new ideas and that's how I looked at this season,” said Lacroix.
Stepping in to take over from the popular German Bernd Haake and Kingston, Lithuanian hockey is not totally a step into the dark for Lacroix. He first visited the country back in 2009 when he also coached some of the players that now skate for the national team. Having returned this month, Lacroix has his vision laid out on how success will be achieved.
“The strength of Lithuanian hockey it is undoubtedly the speed of the game. We also have a young team, so there's a lot of enthusiasm. The guys like to play and work hard, and that is what I want the team's identity to be. On that, there are also challenges, and those are to give these guys a structure that can help us when playing against better-skilled opponents,” he said.
Well aware of his own strengths and limitations as a player, Lacroix was nine years Zubrus' senior when their paths first crossed at the legendary Spectrum in Philadelphia. It was during the 1996/97 season when the Flyers were led by the legion of doom forward line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, who wreaked havoc against opposition rearguards.
“I was always a fourth-line guy and Dainius was a young guy and a very promising player. When I had been a youngster I had veterans helping me and when I become one myself, I tried to help others. I had the chance to play with good leaders such as Joel Otto at the Flyers and at New York Rangers there were guys like Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe and Mark Messier. They were so good also to us fourth-line guys and made us feel important to the team,” Lacroix said.
In a playing career spanning five NHL teams and skating for influential coaches such as Terry Murray at the Flyers and Alain Vigneault at the New York Rangers, Lacroix's first experience of the European game came after he effectively had retired. He dusted off his skates, travelled across the Atlantic to suit up for the Newcastle Jesters during the 2000/01 season. Playing under future World Championship winning coach Jukka Jalonen in the northeast of England became an eye-opener for a previously well-pampered NHLer.
“When it was time to retire, I went to university but I didn't like it. That's when the call came to help a team in England. I didn't know about the league, but I knew I wanted to continue with hockey. There were a lot of Finns there and it was a well-structured team, but we played under very difficult circumstances. You came to practice and there was no zamboni. There was all kind of problems so you learned how fortunate we are in North America with our leagues and structures compared to the challenges some of the teams in Europe are facing,” he recalled of his experience playing for the Jesters, who soon after went out of business.
Following his retirement, Lacroix got a fine start to his coaching career and diligently worked himself through the ranks from the QMJHL to the promised land of the NHL and the New York Islanders. The ascent was made as part of the coaching staff led by Ted Nolan, who later coached two of Lithuania's neighbours, Latvia and Poland.
“I haven't talked to Ted since I got this job. We worked together for three-four years and he played a very big part for me coaching in the NHL and I'll always be grateful for that opportunity. He is a tremendous coach and really helped the teams to come together,” said Lacroix, who subsequently moved on to new challenges at the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens.
A shake-up at the Canadiens at the tail end of last season saw Lacroix become surplus to requirements. Having worked four years at his home-town club, he left with no hard feelings and as a more well-rounded coach.
“I feel a lot of pride to have had the privilege to coach for such a good storied team. I learned to have new responsibilities and to get out from my comfort zone. I used to work with defencemen and now they asked me to work with forwards. Also working with the power play in tough situations and how to deal with that I've learned a lot from,” he said of some of the skills he hopes will come to good stead as Lithuania aims to continue making strides in the world of hockey.
“Last year was a really good year for Lithuanian hockey. The tournament was held here in the country, they had an older team with Zubrus and [Darius] Kasparaitis, who were very important to take the step forward. Now we have to keep going forward. It is tough for me to say about the competition in Division IA, but my focus will be to get together the best players and I know that once we get there, we are going to be a hard-working and well-prepared team,” he said of a division where hosts Kazakhstan, Belarus, Korea, Hungary and Slovenia await between 29 April to 5 May next year.
Based on the showings at this month's Baltic Challenge Cup there is still plenty of room for improvement for Lacroix's Lithuania. Another lingering question is whether the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation will continue with a playing President. During his eight-year spell at the helm, Petras Nauseda represented the national team throughout his tenure. Having been replaced by Zubrus earlier this year, the decision is yet up in the air whether the 40-year-old will be an influential figure also on the ice for Lithuania in Astana.
With the possible addition of Zubrus' experience to the ranks of Lacroix's young team, the Canadian is now fully focused on the tough task facing him without looking too far ahead to the future.
“Like every coach you try to go to the NHL. When the NHL calls you, that is where you want to be. I told the Lithuanian Federation that I can guarantee them one year, but beyond that, I can't at this point,” he said.