Jacques Lemaire, the man who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup title and returned last summer to guide them to their ninth Atlantic Division championship, announced his retirement from coaching on Monday.
After 16 seasons behind the bench with the Devils, Montreal Canadiens, and the Minnesota Wild, Lemaire is ready to turn the page.
“It’ll be hard,” Lemaire told reporters Monday. “It’s a game that I’ve been in for a long time. I really had a passion for it, and I still do. There’s no doubt if I had the energy I would keep going because I love it.”
Lemaire won eight Cups during a Hall of Fame career with the Canadiens, then added two more as a member of Montreal’s front office. He captured his 11th ring in 1995, when he coached the Devils to their first championship. He will remain within the organization.
Lemaire was adamant that this year’s first-round exit didn’t impact his decision. The Devils enjoyed the best first half in club history en route to their fourth division title in five years. But in the playoffs, they faced a Philadelphia Flyers squad that had given them trouble all year long, and bowed out in five games.
“It’s not the team, not the result; the lack of the result that we had in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that at all. It’s the end of the line. I’ll be 65. It’s just time.”
He admitted to low energy levels down the stretch, something that had him thinking retirement a year ago, after eight seasons with the Wild. But the Devils had a coaching vacancy, and general manager Lou Lamoriello came calling.
“Lou came to my place and asked me if I was interested in coaching again,” Lemaire recounted. “I looked at the team, looked at the organization, I got excited again because I love the game and I always had passion for the game. Especially that it was Lou, that I worked for in the past. I knew how he did things. And a team, that I felt had a chance to do good in the playoffs. I went on and signed and accepted the challenge. The year went really well.”
Lamoriello, who talked about the mutual respect that he and Lemaire share, described Lemaire’s arrangement as one that would be evaluated at season’s end, regardless of outcome.
“I flew to Montreal when we needed a coach, and spoke to him, had him look at the team, sent him tapes,” Lamoriello said. “I told him I’d like to see him come back. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Lou, I don’t know where the energy’s going to be with reference to certain things.’ And I said to him, ‘Listen, whatever your decision is, I understand, whether you do or do not want to.' I said, ‘Think about it.’ But there was an understanding between the both of us that he would reevaluate at the end of the year, which would have nothing to do with how the team went; would have nothing to do with wins and losses.”
Lamoriello said he broke the news to the players. Lemaire, visibly upset while talking to reporters, had a hard time with doing it himself.
“This morning, Jacques, he said he spoke to the coaches,” Lamoriello said. “He did come into the room with me when I spoke to the players. It was just a difficult thing because Jacques is a players’ coach. We tried to make it easy. We didn’t know how this would go right here, because of the type of individual he is and the type of person he is. These are tough things, certainly. I don’t know of anyone I have more respect for in this game than him.”
One of the most decorated and widely respected figures in the game, Lemaire enjoyed a season in which his club overcame key injuries to post 48 wins and 103 points.
“The season went really well,” he said. “I would’ve been a lot more tired. The season went really well. I know it’s disappointing because you look at the team and always feel, ‘Hey we have a chance here. We have a chance to do something.' Especially that I felt I was getting towards retirement one day. It would’ve been nice to do something else in the playoffs. That’s my only disappointment. The season, it was good, it was fun. Good coaching staff, good organization. This is why I wanted to keep working for the organization, because I know what they’re trying to do. I like what they’re trying to do.”
Lemaire is the winningest coach in franchise history (247) and held the longest tenure of any Devils coach under Lamoriello. He guided them from 1993-94 to 1997-98, making an appearance in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals before going all the way in 1995. In six total seasons under Lemaire, the Devils amassed 100 or more points four times.