A Tribute to Jacques Lemaire

They should erect a statue of Jacques Lemaire outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey or least have a plaque in his honor in the New Jersey Devils dressing room. Still, I prefer a statue because a statue evokes greater honor and greater meaning. One cannot ignore the presence of a statue as one could do with a plaque.

Jacques Lemaire put North Jersey on the sports world map. Before his arrival in 1994 the New Jersey Devils were the laughing stock of the NHL; a team even the Great One Wayne Gretzky felt free to deride.

Jacques Lemaire changed all that.

He gave the Devils pride, legitimacy, a winning tradition (where none had existed before) and a championship. Even after he left in 1998 the Devils kept winning and won two more Stanley Cups (albeit for other coaches) but it was Lemaire who taught them how to win and how to be champions). Lemaire built the Minnesota Wild from scratch and yet made them a winning team and playoff contenders (something his successors have failed to do).

Twice the Devils begged Lemaire to come back and help the team win again. Both times Lemaire agreed to do so… and succeeded.

When the 2010-11 season began the Devils literally went to hell; swiftly becoming the worst team in the NHL. On December 23, 2010 the Devils fired John MacLean and asked Lemaire to return once more as head coach.

What followed must be seen as a personal triumph for Jacques Lemaire as a coach. Even though the New Jersey Devils failed to have a winning season or reach the playoffs, Lemaire performed one of the greatest interim coaching jobs in NHL history. After losing seven of the first eight games he coached, Lemaire got the Devils playing at a fever pitch that astounded the rest of the hockey world. From January 9 to March 15 the Devils won 23 of their next 28 games: suffering only three defeats and two overtime losses.

By the Ides of March the Devils had a winning record and a shot at the playoffs. Lemaire demanded…and got the Devils to play at the level of excellence they were supposed to play but had not under John MacLean.

The turnaround was astonishing: under MacLean the Devils were only scoring 1.79 goals per game while  allowing 3.12 goals; under Lemaire the Devils averaged 2.34 goals scored on offense while allowing only 2.16 goals on defense.

The Ides of March bode ill for Lemaire and the Devils. They lost eight of their last thirteen games and finished in fourth place in the Atlantic Division twelve points out of playoff competition.

Considering the amazing turnaround Lemaire wrought it begs the inevitable question: what if Devils GM Lou Lamoriello had fired John MacLean 2-3 weeks sooner?

The New Jersey Devil’s winning percentage under Lemaire was a blistering .622% if Lemaire had coached the entire season with that winning percentage the Devils would have earned 102 team points and the number six seed in the Eastern Conference.

When the regular season ended Lemaire once again announced his resignation as head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

Although the team failed to gain a winning season and a playoff slot what they accomplished was a magnificent reaffirmation of Jacques Lemaire’s excellence as a hockey coach. Only a true coaching genius could make a last place team play like champions even though they did not win the championship.

And that is what Jacques Lemaire is and was: a true coaching genius.

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