Best coach: Jacques Lemaire

Jacques Lemaire is a teacher who derives his greatest satisfaction from improving players, not racking up victories.

Originally Published: December 25, 2003
By Brian Murphy | The Hockey News

The Hockey News solicited votes from 42 journalists to come up with "The Best of Everything in Hockey." One correspondent from each NHL city and 12 national media members were asked to vote on various disciplines for active players and executives. In addition, they cast ballots on NHL franchise-related off-ice departments. Five points were awarded for first-place votes, three for second and one for third. The accompanying story and voting results is one of more than 40 areas featured. The complete results can be found in "The Best of Everything in Hockey" magazine. Also featured in the publication are all-time bests from each of the 30 organizations and a fan vote on the top 10 favorite players from each franchise.

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Best Coach
  Coach, Team Votes
1. J. Lemaire, Min 174
2. Ken Hitchcock, Phi 149
  Pat Burns, NJ 49
4. Jacques Martin, Ott 42
5. Bob Hartley, Atl 11
6. J. Quenneville, StL 10
7. Mike Babcock, Ana 9
8. John Tortorella, TB 7
9. Andy Murray, LA 4
10. three tied 3

The Jack Adams Trophy sits on the credenza in Jacques Lemaire's sparsely decorated office at the Xcel Energy Center, the lone relic from a hockey season that defied logic and defined one of the greatest underdog stories in NHL history.

But the reigning coach of the year, who guided the third-year Minnesota Wild to the Stanley Cup semifinal last spring, hardly acknowledges the hardware. He cannot take his eyes off the plain white magnet board on the wall, where dozens of players' names stare back.

Many are familiar veterans. Others are hungry prospects. Some will be forgotten quickly in the coming weeks. But 23 of them will comprise the 2003-04 Wild after what is expected to be the team's most competitive training camp.

And the unknown has Lemaire twitching with nervous energy about what his next team can do for an encore.

"We're a little scared because of what happened last year. We're ahead of our time," he said on the eve of training camp, recalling the 36-day playoff run that took the state and the league by storm.

"To me, it's a challenge, a huge one because we weren't supposed to be there. That's what I'm telling the guys."

As someone who has sipped from 11 Stanley Cups, reaching the pinnacle of hockey as a player, coach and manager, it would seem ludicrous to ask where being swept in the Western Conference final ranks among his accomplishments. But Lemaire has had four months to reflect on what the Wild achieved last season -- 95 points, a playoff berth and stunning upsets of the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks in the first two rounds. He simply shakes his head.

"It's pretty close to winning a Cup with a good team," he said. "When we started the first 10 games and we were first in the NHL, the coaches...we started making jokes: 'Could you imagine if we made the playoffs? Are you kidding?' Then we would go on and chat about something else."

Few people in Denver or Vancouver were laughing after the Wild became the first team in league history to twice rally from 3-1 series deficits.

After an abbreviated summer, Lemaire is back for his fourth season behind the Minnesota bench. And he is excited about the future of a team that is getting younger.

Lemaire, 58, foremost is a teacher who derives his greatest satisfaction from improving players, not simply racking up victories, which made him a perfect, if unlikely, fit for an expansion franchise.

A panel made up of correspondents of The Hockey News in each of the 30 NHL cities, as well as hockey experts, selected him as the best coach in the game today.

He believes there always is room for improvement and learning in each drill, pre-game meeting and shift, from the youngest franchise cornerstones to the aging role players, the fourth-line forward to the starting goaltender.

"It's easy to say a coach produces a role and needs a player to fill it. Jacques has done the opposite," said GM Doug Risebrough, who convinced his former Montreal teammate to climb aboard two years after he resigned in New Jersey.

"He says, 'What is this guy all about?' and puts him in a setting where he can succeed. The team has been built around the personnel more than the personnel has been formed around the team."

Players need not worry about where they stand with him, because he demands the same work ethic and on-ice responsibility from everyone.

Lemaire's approach is direct, but he rarely yells at players or rips them in the media, even privately.

Consequently, his big tent does not have a doghouse for banished players to curl up and sulk. By rotating regulars and grinders into the lineup, everyone is pulling the rope. As a result, there is harmony in a dressing room that houses more passers-by than permanent residents.

Lemaire has not said how long he would like to keep coaching. Last year, he signed an open-ended extension with the Wild through 2006-2007. It would be his 14th season behind the bench.

It is a career he never imagined until Serge Savard convinced him to take over a fractured Canadiens team in 1984. But it also is one that has provided some of his best memories in hockey.

"I always thank Savard for this because I would have missed a lot of good things in my life. Great satisfactions," he said, glancing up at the names on the board. "They're like our children. You look at them every day. You see the name, see the person and wonder how they can get better."

Always teaching.

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