WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published December 12, 2013, 09:06 PM

Adieu, Frenchy: French Lacrosse, 83, provided hangout, support to GF fans and athletes

Ralph Engelstad and hockey brought Hubert Jean “Frenchy” Lacrosse to Grand Forks in 1952. He was playing hockey for the San Bernardino (Calif.) Shamrocks, meeting ex-UND hockey players including Engelstad, who convinced him to come to UND to play hockey.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Ralph Engelstad and hockey brought Hubert Jean “Frenchy” Lacrosse to Grand Forks in 1952. He was playing hockey for the San Bernardino (Calif.) Shamrocks, meeting ex-UND hockey players including Engelstad, who convinced him to come to UND to play hockey.

Lacrosse moved here but couldn’t afford college, he said. But he stayed.

Engelstad famously left Grand Forks not long after to become a wealthy Las Vegas casino owner who donated more than $110 million for two hockey arenas in Grand Forks.

Lacrosse ended up providing an education, of sorts, to many UND students, as well as off-campus support, from the 1960s until 1994 through two well-loved sports bars that sponsored amateur teams for men and women and inexpensive brew and lifetime friendship with Frenchy.

Lacrosse died Dec. 5 in his home in Hemet, Calif. He was 83.

His family had moved from Montreal — where he was born in 1929 of Belgian, not French, extraction, he told the Herald — to California when he was 15.

But Lacrosse spent more than half his life in Grand Forks where his bar and restaurant, Frenchy’s, on Stanford Road just north of UND’s campus, was the first real sports bar in the area and long a favorite of students, many who had their personalized beer mug hanging from the ceiling.

“He had one of the first satellites, back when they were the size of a volcano crater, up on his roof, before there was any cable or DirectTV, and he would find stuff, from experimenting, and pull in games from the East Coast and from the West Coast you couldn’t get on normal TV,” said longtime friend and customer Kent Keyes, who began frequenting Frenchy’s in the early 1970s. “It was unique in its time.”

Lacrosse repaired televisions in the 1950s and 1960s, became a partner in Matt’s Tavern near downtown and refereed hockey games across the region, at the high school and college level, including UND.

Popular hangouts

Lacrosse built Frenchy’s in 1968, opening on Feb. 26, 1969.

“The reason I built the place was that the downtown bars said they didn’t want the college students because they were too rowdy,” Frenchy told the Herald in 1999 when his former bar at 1302 Stanford Rd. was demolished by the new owner, Hansen Ford. “Well, the purpose of our place was to be loud and have fun. But I don’t remember a single fight in my place.”

It was called Frenchy’s Tavern, and Frenchy’s Food & Fun Emporium, and even Frenchy’s Cabaret for a time, according to Herald records. But mostly it was just “Frenchy’s.”

Lacrosse was famous for sponsoring amateur basketball and softball teams.

Keyes played on the city league basketball team sponsored by Frenchy for a decade.

“He was the best sponsor I ever had. He would buy uniforms, always treat you to food and beverage after a game,” said Keyes, longtime director of the Red River Valley Community Action agency. “When you came in, he never asked if you won the game. He asked did you have fun and did everyone get to play?”

Lacrosse figured he sold about 16,000 of the 20-ounce ceramic mugs emblazoned with a customer’s name indelibly marked on it. About 1,600 hung from the ceiling by the early 1990s.

Frenchy was ordered to get out of the bar business by his doctor because of his emphysema and put it up for sale in 1990, finally shutting its doors in 1994 when he sold it to Hansen Ford next door.

Keyes retrieved his mug from Frenchy in the last days of the bar.

But he said many former customers didn’t know about the closing and many mugs ended up at a second-hand store in East Grand Forks.

“They had boxes and boxes of them,” Keyes said.

Hometown booster

Former UND hockey coach Gino Gasparini met Lacrosse as a UND player in the 1960s.

“He was bartending at Matt’s Tavern, where we all hung out,” Gasparini said Thursday from his lake home.

Matt’s was the main UND and sports hangout in the 1950s and 1960s, just a block off North Washington and University Avenue at 206 N. 12th St., said longtime teacher and civic leader Gary Malm, who wasn’t unknown at Matt’s back in the day.

“He was refereeing in those days and he was quite a guy, had quite a reputation as an official,” Gasparini said of Lacrosse in the 1960s. “He was a character but he was well-liked by everybody. Of course, the visiting teams always called him a homer. His response was, ‘Well, that’s where I’m from’”

Lacrosse became a partner at Matt’s and took the beer license with him when he started Frenchy’s, Gasparini said.

Frenchy also took the sports-soaked theme: Matt’s was known for sponsoring one of the best fast-pitch softball teams in the Upper Midwest.

His reputation as a biased ref remains on the minds of the players who felt victimized.

About five years ago, Keyes ran into hockey great Tony Esposito at an establishment in Wisconsin and traded stories of WCHA hockey with the Chicago Blackhawk goalie legend who played for Michigan Tech in the mid-1960s.

“He said ‘That G-d d---ed bar owner up there always hosed us when we came to Grand Forks, so we couldn’t beat you guys,’ so I told him that was my friend Frenchy Lacrosse,” Keyes said, laughing.

Lacrosse moved to Phoenix for a few years in the early 1990s, moving back to find a “warmer” community. Several years ago he moved to Ashley, N.D.

He and his wife, Viola, moved to California in 2011, according to his obituary.

He is survived by his wife, and 11 children and stepchildren, 34 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. An endowment fund in his memory, benefiting UND, has been set up at the UND Foundation.

A funeral mass will be held 9 a.m., Dec. 17, in Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, Hemet, Calif.

Lacrosse still came back to UND for football and hockey games in recent years, said Keyes, who last saw him in September when the ailing Frenchy came back to visit friends and family.

“He was a fixture in this community for a long time. He deserves to be remembered.”