A classmate of Ava Leroux’s once told her that they watched a video of Leroux’s father beating up another man.

Leroux took it in stride.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it a million times. He was a big fighter,” said Leroux, a senior at South Fayette High School.

Leroux’s father, Francois, is a former NHL defenseman who played for the Penguins for three seasons in the mid-1990s. Francois, a fan favorite known by most as “Frankie,” wasn’t a big goal scorer or flashy skater, but rather an enforcer. Mess with Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr, and Leroux would likely be nearby ready to greet you with some not-so-pleasant pleasantries.

These days, Frankie Leroux is still a big sports fan, only it’s basketball, not hockey, that he watches most regularly. For that he can thank Ava, a Division I recruit who is considered one of the top girls basketball players in the WPIAL.

Ava Leroux doesn’t look up to many WPIAL players. That’s because few are as tall as her. Like her father, who is 6 feet 6, Ava is anything but vertically challenged. At 6-3, Leroux is a standout center for a South Fayette team that is looking to repeat as WPIAL Class 5A champion. Leroux is averaging a double-double for the Lions, who are 16-2 and in first place in their section.

“She’s been outstanding this season,” South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett said. “She’s averaging a double-double and she’s been doing a lot of great things on the defensive end of the floor. She’s improved her game to being more than a post player. Her ability to handle the ball on the perimeter and lead us in transition has been huge.”

Leroux, an Elon recruit, pairs with fellow senior Maddie Webber (17.6 points per game), a Villanova recruit, to give South Fayette one of the best inside-outside tandems in the state. The two are close friends and even live on the same street. Leroux ranks second on the team in scoring with 11.8 points and is first in rebounding with 10.1. She’s also second in steals with 2.1.

Transitioning from professional hockey player to girls basketball junkie has been a work in progress for Frankie Leroux, who wasn’t exactly an encyclopedia of basketball knowledge growing up in Quebec.

“The only thing I knew about basketball was pretty much nothing,” he said, laughing.

Frankie’s playing career also included NHL stops in Edmonton, Ottawa and Colorado, and additional playing stops everywhere from Berlin to Wilkes-Barre, but he ultimately settled down in Western Pennsylvania. Why? Because he met a girl. His wife, Lori, grew up in Carroll, Washington County, and graduated from Ringgold High School. The two met in a quintessential Pittsburgh way — at a bar (Redbeard’s on Mount Washington). The couple will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this July. They have two other children, twins Quinn and Juliette, who are ninth graders at South Fayette. Quinn plays hockey, while Juliette plays basketball and volleyball.

“The fact that I’m married to a local girl really carried some weight, believe it or not,” Frankie said. “And the weather here in Pittsburgh is an upgrade from where I’m from. Pittsburgh is a great place for kids and a great place to raise a family.”

The Leroux family attend a Pittsburgh Penguins game. From left: Quinn, Frankie, Ava, Lori and Juliette. (Submitted)

Ava has always been heavily involved in sports, just not the one her father played at the highest level. It wasn’t by design, but rather just how it played out.

“She skated a little bit in the beginning,” Frankie recalled. “She wanted to play, but for some reason I said, ‘Let’s try something else.’”

Added Ava, “Equipment is very expensive, and I was a busy kid. I was playing softball, basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball. I’ve watched my brother play a lot, and I’ve been to a lot of Pens games. I wish I would have played. It’s a fun, aggressive sport.”

Eventually, Ava, who wears a size 14½ women’s shoe, settled on basketball and volleyball. As a middle hitter in volleyball, Leroux was named first-team all-state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association last fall.

When it comes to aggressiveness, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Ava can be tough and scrappy on the court. Just don’t expect to see her drop the proverbial gloves and throw hands with an opposing player.

“I don’t know how he could do that, start a fight right in the middle of the ice like that,” Ava said with a laugh.

Bennett said that one of his assistant coaches once sent him a video of one of Frankie Leroux’s NHL brawls.

“It was a video of Mr. Leroux in a little skirmish,” Bennett said. “You do see a little of that edge in Ava. She’s a sweet kid, but she does have that side to her. It just doesn’t come out often.”

Frankie, 52, retired from the NHL in 2003, but he’s still an active member of the workforce. After working in construction for many years, he’s now a member of the maintenance crew at Allegheny Health Network’s Wexford Hospital. Lori works as a teacher in the South Fayette School District.

Frankie Leroux holds a “Fathead” of his daughter, Ava, during a South Fayette girls volleyball match last fall. (Submitted)

If you go to a South Fayette game, chances are you’ll see a former Penguins player in the stands. And when Frankie isn’t watching Ava play, he’s often watching basketball with Ava on television. 

“I’m starting to get pretty accustomed to it because that’s all I watch now,” Frankie said. “I watch NCAA ball, boys and girls. I still wouldn’t be able to teach her anything. She knows way more than me, but I can always guide her as an athlete of what to do and what not to do.”

Dad’s increasing basketball knowledge has been an impressive development in Ava’s mind. As a sophomore, she said her dad barely knew anything about the sport.

“He’s definitely picked it up,” Ava said. “He’s picked up new terminology. He’s basically been to every single one of my games. Basketball is a big part of my family.”

This time next year, Ava will be in the middle of her freshman year at Elon University, located about 20 miles east of Greensboro, N.C. The Phoenix compete in the Colonial Athletic Association. But there will still be a Leroux on the South Fayette girls basketball team. Juliette is a promising 5-10 freshman who has seen some varsity time this season. 

“She’s taller for her grade, but I don’t see her as a traditional post player,” Bennett said. “She’s proven this year that she can hit the outside shots. She’s crafty inside and she’s athletic. She’s one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever coached, and she’s only a freshman.”

Between Ava and Juliette, a former NHL heavyweight would seem to have lots of basketball viewing in his future.

Frankie Leroux wouldn’t want it any other way.

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.