Legendary bench boss Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement from coaching today.
Lemaire’s career as a player and coach has spanned the entire modern era of the National Hockey League; his rookie season (1967-68) was the first year the league expanded beyond the Original Six franchises. It was also the final season for Toe Blake as coach of the powerhouse Canadiens; after a few years under other coaches the team would settle on Scotty Bowman as it’s head coach, so Lemaire had the privilege of not only playing for one of the most powerful teams in league history, but also for playing as a two-way forward under two of the finest coaches in the history of the game.
Lemaire’s Hall of Fame playing career ended in 1979; he promptly moved over to Europe to become a playing coach for Sierre of the Swiss ‘B’ League. Those weren’t the days when players and coaches made the obscene amounts of money they do now, but Lemaire was well paid as both a player and a coach in the NHL and Switzerland, earning six figures in each role. He tossed all that away to make himself a better coach, accepting an assistant coaching job at Plattsbrugh State College, a job which paid him the illustrious sum of $10,000 dollars per year and had him not just handling the hockey team but also teaching college kids how to skate. Michael Farber, then with the Montreal Gazette, asked Lemaire why. Lemaire was candid with Farber about a lot of things; not only explaining why he took such a low-paying job, but how he felt about a lack of recognition as a two-way forward and why he didn’t relish a head coaching job.
Lemaire explained that he took the college job because he wanted to learn about coaching.
“I was offered the job as an assistant coach with a National Hockey League team this season, but I didn’t want it. I wanted to learn… Coaches at this level teach more fundamentals, which is a lack in my own background. A coach now has to know where to start teaching his players. I never saw any teaching in the pros. If you got hit once, that’s how you learned.”
As a player, Lemaire contributed all over; he had nearly a point-per-game scoring pace while playing shutdown hockey in both the playoffs and regular season, and scored two Cup-winning goals, but he was never the marquee player in Montreal. Still, he didn’t feel left out of the limelight:
“I was appreciated… by people who liked my style. And I was hated by other people. A group of persons go to the games to see Lafleur and Gretzky. There’s another group that go to see Nilan fight. And there are other people who go to study the game, to see who’s doing his job and who isn’t. I like to think those people appreciated me… I liked being second or third violin. As long as the team was doing great, that was my main purpose. I was happy. Satisfied.”
I loved those quotes, but I was most surprised when Lemaire explained that he might not be a good head coach, because it didn’t fit with how I’ve always pictured him:
“Maybe I would be better as an assistant coach. I think I can do a lot for players in that position. A head coach must be distant from his players to a certain extent. I think that I would be closer to the players. If a guy isn’t playing well, there must be something wrong. I would try to find out and help him. I remember there were some times in my career when something was wrong and I wish someone could have helped me solve my problem.”
However much Lemaire enjoyed being an assistant, he wasn’t destined to spend much time in the role. After his year coaching college hockey, Lemaire took a head coaching job in the QMJHL for a single season, with the expansion Longueuil Chevaliers. The Chevaliers were an expansion team, not expected to even qualify for the QMJHL playoffs. Instead, Lemaire took the team to a winning regular season record by instituting a tight-checking defensive scheme. The team set a CHL record as the most successful expansion team ever and reached the league finals, which they lost to the Pat LaFontaine-lead Verdun Juniors. That summer, Lemaire re-joined the Canadiens as an assistant coach. Late in the season, he was named head coach, replacing Bob Berry.
Even then, Lemaire wanted it to be clear what kind of coach he would be. After explaining to The Gazette’s Red Fisher that a coach’s job is simply to get a message across, and how difficult it could be to get players to buy-in to a system, Lemaire explained what needed to happen if players didn’t want to embrace the coach’s system.
“It’s difficult to get your message across, but if it becomes too difficult for some of the players, there’s only one thing left to do. You get rid of them.”
Lemaire managed to get the Canadiens into the playoffs that year, and then got them wins in the first two rounds, upsetting the higher-seeded Bruins and Nordiques before losing in the third round. The next year, he helped the team to a winning record but lost in a second-round seven-game series. Despite some success as a coach and the fact that Canadiens’ management wanted him to stay on, Lemaire, who claimed he had never wanted the head coaching job in the first place, retired. He’d been troubled by insomnia and wasn’t enjoying his job. He accepted a management position with the Canadiens instead; the Canadiens would go on to win two Stanley Cups during his time in the front office. After the second Cup win, in 1993, Lemaire decided to return to coaching, joining the New Jersey Devils.
After only leaving the first round of the playoffs once in franchise history, Lemaire took the Devils all the way to the third round in his first year as head coach. A year later, he would guide the team to the Stanley Cup, espousing the same defensive philosophy he had as a player.
“What I coach is what I’ve lived, and I believe in it. Every coach has a different philosophy. My theory is that the attack takes care of itself when you protect yourself in the defensive zone and the neutral zone, and we’re getting better every day at the things I want to see done."
Lemaire’s been reviled as the originator of the neutral-zone trap, but in his first year with the club the Devils scored 306 goals, good for second in the NHL. Unfortunately, his early success with the Devils didn’t last; they missed the playoffs the year after winning the cup, then suffered second- and first-round losses in the two years following.
In May of 1998, Lemaire retired again, saying that it was time. He was criticized as a man unable to adapt, and his unpopular defensive schemes were attacked, although he was defended by general manager Lou Lamoriello.
“Our system, our style of play, produced nothing but winning. I don’t know how you can question that.”
After stepping down as coach, Lemaire left the Devils entirely late in 1998, re-joining the Canadiens in a front office role. He stayed in that role for two years, but had missed coaching and jumped at the chance to run the bench for the expansion Minnesota Wild. The Wild made it all the way to the third round of the playoffs in just their third year of existence, and were competitive throughout Lemaire’s tenure with the team. Lemaire stepped down from that job last summer; the Wild were looking at a change in philosophy after eight years and Lemaire decided it was time to make a change.
And after a single year in New Jersey, it’s time once more. Reading through articles on his previous departures, Lemaire says almost the same thing on every occasion; and he did it again here: he cited no problems with the team, but just indicates that the time is right to move on. One thing was different here, however:
“It’s the end of the line — I’ll be 65 (on Sept. 7). It’s just time.”
Lemaire says he still loves coaching and I can’t help but wonder if this really is the end; he’s left before, and come back, although admittedly he was younger. Perhaps he’ll do what he’s done in the past, and accept a front office job with an NHL team. Not only has he filled the role before, but it seems like something that would come naturally to him. He was a thinker as a player, a thinker as a coach, and a student of the game as few others have been