- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
It was during the lockout when Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough discovered that Jacques Lemaire was still a hockey coach and not some guy who couldn't wait to get back to the putting machine in his office.
As a way of maintaining a connection with the fan and corporate base in the Twin Cities, the Wild put on a series of fantasy camps led by Lemaire and the rest of his coaching staff. During those sessions with middle-aged businessmen and fans, Lemaire would sometimes skate by Risebrough and shout enthusiastically, "They're getting it Doug, they're really getting it!"
"And they were," Risebrough said with a laugh.
And while his tenure in Minnesota defies the normal life cycle for an NHL coach, it really wasn't all that surprising that the 61-year-old Lemaire, accompanied by his 9-month-old grandson, posed for pictures last week after signing a contract extension that will carry him through the 2009-10 season.
Not that the contract extension has done much to diffuse the urban legends that continue to surround the unbeaten Minnesota Wild (5-0-0).
Or the belief Lemaire would still rather have his players never leave their own zone, and if they must, they leave one at a time and only for a moment. He actually doesn't mind if they leave the zone as long as they come back.
Further, there is no truth to the rumor that Lemaire signed his extension on the condition that his players don't give up an odd-man rush for the next six months.
But the thing about urban legends is that, well, they become legend or take on the appearance of fact. Lemaire knows that.
He knows that people believe he has only one gear: "D," for defense. And he knows there were folks in the hockey community who believed the man credited with inventing the trap (and, by extension, the man blamed for ruining the game for most of the last decade) wouldn't be able to adjust to the new NHL, and wouldn't be able to coach a team that suddenly looked ready to compete offensively in the run 'n' gun Western Conference.
"I don't worry about that," Lemaire told ESPN.com this week. "Because those people that say that don't know about the game and they probably never saw us play."
Before the arrival of Demitra, Parrish, Johnsson and Keith Carney, Lemaire suggested few critics of the Wild's style of play could have even named five players on the team.
In a nutshell, that was the paradox of Lemaire and his first five years in Minnesota. Did the Wild, who have made the playoffs once since joining the league in 2000 and have once scored more than 200 goals, play a conservative style because that is Lemaire's wont or did they play that style because they didn't have enough oars to keep up with division foes Vancouver, Colorado or Edmonton?
Lemaire comes to practice every day in St. Paul and does the same drills he's always done, only now they're done more crisply and executed to a higher degree of competency.
Why? Because he has players such as Johnsson, the former Philadelphia Flyer signed in the offseason who leads the Wild in average ice time at 24:22 and has chipped in a pair of goals and an assist. Or Demitra, who has meshed hand-in-glove with gifted Slovak countryman Marian Gaborik. The pair combined for 13 points in five games and there is every indication this is the season in which Gaborik fulfills his vast potential and challenges for a scoring title.
Did we mention that the Wild have yet to lose, making them one of only two undefeated teams in the Western Conference at the start of the week (Dallas is the other)?
"We're not going to change. We're the same and better, but not different. And the guy that guides that is Jacques," said Risebrough, who played with Lemaire on four Cup-winning teams in Montreal in the '70s.
"He hasn't changed. I just guess the optics are different," Risebrough said.
As teammates, Risebrough developed an appreciation for Lemaire's intelligence for the game, and his commitment to offense.
"Nobody loved to score more, even in practice, than Jacques Lemaire," said Risebrough, who calls Lemaire the best two-way player he's ever seen.
When it came time to hire a coach for the expansion Wild before the 2000 season, Risebrough, who'd had a short and admittedly unsuccessful stint behind the bench of the Calgary Flames, asked around about what made a good coach, and further, who was the best in the business. He heard two names over and over: Pat Quinn and Lemaire. He asked Lemaire (who'd already won a Cup as the coach of the New Jersey Devils but walked away because he wasn't having any fun) whether he would be comfortable with the inevitable expansion-team growing pains. Lemaire said he'd coached an expansion squad in the Quebec Major Junior League and loved it.
"Because everybody needs teaching," Lemaire said.
It is what drives Lemaire even now.
Veteran forward Wes Walz, an original Wild, insisted that the foundation laid by Lemaire in the early seasons remains in place even though the team suddenly opened the vault this summer in acquiring Demitra, et al.
"I thought I knew how to play hockey before I got here," Walz said. "I didn't. He just gets a kick out of turning players into better players. I just think he loves coming to the rink."
Standoffish? Walz acknowledged Lemaire might strike some as being so.
"But I know him differently and he's not like that at all," he said. "He just cares about his players."
That's not to say that everything is the same around the Xcel Center. Did we mention the Wild are 5-0-0? Well, other teams read the papers and surf the Internet, too, so there is a different expectation from opponents when they step onto the ice against the Wild.
"We've already seen it," Walz said. "Teams are going to be ready for us."
So far, the Wild have met that challenge, winning in overtime, twice by shootout, on a late goal and finally by blowout (OK, blowouts by Wild standards, a 5-0 win over Columbus). They have done so with a potent power play and delicious puck movement and a three-line attack.
If the team prepares and practices the same way it always has under Lemaire, there is a considerable difference in the urgency attached to the proceedings, Lemaire said.
In the past, the team always preached patience because the Wild was built primarily from the inside out, from drafting and developing its own players.
Now, said Lemaire, "we're a little less patient. They have to do what you're asking them to do because we want to move on."
There's also the understanding in the dressing room that simply throwing a couple of name players at a roster does not make a playoff team, let alone a Cup contender.
Witness the Boston Bruins. Or the Phoenix Coyotes. Those teams were a combined 2-7-1 at the start of the week in spite of significant offseason additions. Last season, Pittsburgh, Boston and Atlanta failed to make the playoffs in spite of a flurry of free-agent signings.
"We're scared to death of being one of those teams," Walz said. "I know I am."
When he signed the second of three contract extensions with the Wild, Lemaire figured that would be it. The business being what it is, he assumed either the Wild would tire of him or he would tire of them. But it hasn't turned out that way. To mark the signing of his new deal, Lemaire brought along his daughter's infant son for the photo op.
"I just felt that it would be really something for him later on, when he'll grow up to say I was there when Grandpa signed his last contract," Lemaire said.
At the rate Lemaire and the Wild are going, Lemaire's grandson might well end up showing up at training camp with skates and a stick before the old coach finally decides on the putting machine for good.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
6dESPN stats & info