On Thursday night after the New Jersey Devils lost their first round playoff series to the Philadelphia Flyers, Ilya Kovalchuk made a remark that really struck a chord in me as being 100% true about Jacques Lemaire. He told the press that Lemaire made him into a better hockey player.
In the short amount of time that Kovalchuk worked with Lemaire, he was able to gain so much knowledge from him on how to be a better player. That rings true for many of the young Devils that worked with Jacques for the first time.
For me, I learned to look at the game of hockey through Lemaire’s eyes. He has a way of opening your eyes to a different view. He is the master teaching his students how to be better at hockey no matter if you are a player or a hockey columnist. He is teaching everyone how to be better at hockey.
He teaches everything he knows about this game at an elevated level. You learn to see the game in a whole new light that only a man of 43 years of NHL experience can teach to the new generation of hockey.
Last summer, Zach Parise commented that Brian Rolston had told him that Lemaire was by far the best coach he had ever worked with. Based on everything Parise had heard, he was just as excited as Rolston to learn that Lemaire would be coaching the Devils during the 2009-10 season. Little did they know that Lemaire already knew that this would probably be his final season.
That short experience that Kovalchuk had, as well as many of the young Devils, came to an end today.
The master decided that his time behind the bench had drawn to a close. Lemaire announced his decision to retire to Devils GM and President Lou Lamoriello on Sunday, just three days following the Devils exit from the playoff race. Lamoriello made the announcement to the team and to the media today.
“It started my last year in Minnesota,” Lemaire told the Star-Ledger. “I was starting to think about retirement. Lou came to my place (on Montreal) and asked me if I was interested to coach again. I looked at the team and the organization and I got excited again because I love the game. Especially because it was Lou and I worked for him in the past.
“I felt we felt we had a chance to do good in the playoffs. I went on and signed and accepted the challenge. The year went really well. It’s not problems you have with the players. That is nothing. It’s part of the game. It’s not the team. It’s not the result or lack of result in the playoffs. It’s not that at all.”
“It’s the end of the line. I’ll be 65. It’s just time.”
There were certain elements of his press conference on Thursday that alluded to his upcoming announcement. He looked like hockey had finally tired him out. This was his final race. According to the Star-Ledger, that was the case.
The Atlantic Division Title
Before the start of the playoffs, Lemaire emphasized on one major thing that he needed from the team: his wish for the Devils to win the Atlantic Division title. Every player in the locker room talked about this challenge. That was one of the most important things that was demanded of the team in the last two weeks of the regular season.
With the Pittsburgh Penguins constantly going neck-to-neck with the Devils for the number one spot in the division, the Devils had a challenge to win and keep on winning. Losing was not an answer. Their goal was the title.
In the end, Lemaire got his wish. The Devils finished the season with the Atlantic Division title.
While Lemaire inspired many of us to become greater, he leaves behind an extensive and amazing legacy as both a coach and a player.
One of the first things you notice about Lemaire is his Stanley Cup ring. He wears that ring with great pride.
He spent his entire hockey playing career with the Montreal Canadiens (1967-79) and was a part of winning the Stanley Cup as a player not once, or twice, but eight times.
He’s been a part of eleven Stanley Cups in his entire career with the NHL: eight as a player, two as an assistant GM (Montreal), and once as the head coach for the New Jersey Devils (1995). It comes as no surprise that he would decide to end his career where he last won the holy grail…with a team that he had hoped would win it one last time before he signed off.