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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Curtain Rises on Lemaire

A week into New Jersey's training camp, Lemaire gathered the ingredients and began stirring the pot. His recipe was the acme of simplicity.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

It was hard not to like Jacques Lemaire.

The warm smile was enough to get you.

His overwhelming love of teaching hockey was another.

The balding French-Canadian by way of Montreal was a smoothie and a softy in the best sense of the words.

There's a bushel more to like about the guy but suffice to say that Devils players -- almost to a man -- would second the motion of New Jersey's Cup-winning center Bobby Holik:

"He was the best coach I ever had," Holik asserted, "and there's nobody in second place."

Of course, nobody knew that when the charming Hall of Famer opened training camp in September 1993. But there was plenty of guessing.

"The fact is," Holik explained, "none of us knew whether he'd want us to copy the style his Canadiens had when Jacques won all those Cups in Montreal. Scotty Bowman was his coach then."

A Hall of Fame coach, Bowman won four straight titles (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979) with Lemaire as his primary pivot. 

"Jacques was a thinking man's hockey player," Bowman remembered, "and he took all that knowledge with him when he went behind the bench."

A week into New Jersey's training camp, Lemaire gathered the ingredients and began stirring the pot. His recipe was the acme of simplicity.

Lemaire: "I believe that when three guys know each other well and know what they'll do and where they'll go, they'll play better than if you're switching all the time."

Jacques-Be-Nimble didn't go nuts with analytics nor ouija boards. He knew what he wanted and so did his stick handlers. 

"The instant he took over Jacques got respect," remembered Mister Devil, Ken Daneyko. "You couldn't help but respect him. He came from a winning organization and when he spoke we knew what he's talking about. The same went for Larry Robinson."

When interviewed for the job, Lemaire told general manager Lou Lamoriello that he wanted to bring his former Habs teammate, Larry Robinson, as an assistant coach. Lou seconded the motion.

"Working with Jacques was a joy," Robbie agreed. "We'd gotten along so well with the Canadiens and we agreed on what we wanted to do."

Make no mistake, Lamoriello gave Lemaire the tools to work with and they were many and varied. One who would prove to be the club's cornerstone -- in due time -- was a peach-faced rookie, son of a goaltender.

Martin Brodeur was his name. Marty's dad had been a very competent minor-league goalie from yesteryear, Denis Brodeur. As it happened, Denis taught Marty well.

The young puckstopper won modest critical acclaim in his cameo role during the previous (1992-93) season but still was untested under heavy fire with real ammunition.

"We'll give Marty plenty of work," Lemaire opined, "and see how he handles it. But we also have a tested goalie, Chris Terreri, and he'll help the kid along."

Fronting the goaltenders was a formidable blue corps that included captain Scott Stevens, Bruce Driver, and another youthful sensation-in-the-making, Scott Niedermayer.

"I could tell that our club was just jelling," said Nieder, who would skate on to a Hall of Fame career, "and it was obvious that Jacques would be a blessing in terms of moving us ahead."

And move they did.

They opened the season at a gallop, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven consecutive victories that set a New Jersey franchise record. They beat the Florida Panthers, 2-1, on October 24, 1993, to set the mark.

"The trick," asserted the very-steady-defenseman Driver, "has been good preparation. Jacques and Larry came in and told us how they wanted to play."

 The Two Scotties defense were assisted by Russian veteran Slava Fetisov and Swedish Tommy Albelin. The forward units were well-balanced by Lemaire.

One of the least-expected -- and most consistent -- of the units would eventually be labeled "The Best Fourth Line Since Expansion." It gave the team grit and guile in equal doses.

It comprised Holik at center, flanked by Mike Peluso and Randy McKay. Each was tough in a different way. Together they fit like three perfectly meshed gears.

"Their rambunctious style earned them the perfect nickname -- The Crash Line," said Devils radio analyst Glenn (Chico) Resch. "But they also had an offensive element; with the accent on crash."

Bobby Carpenter, once a Sports Illustrated cover boy as a rookie Washington Capitals ace, emerged as the club's premier defensive center on a club that would master the art of two-way play better than most.

 Jersey native Jim Dowd was part of the offensive equation. It also included New Englander Bill Guerin, as well as the high-scoring francophone pair, Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux.

"One of our best assets," said Lemieux, "was the ability that Jacques had to throw four lines out there at any given time and feel confident that -- whichever line it might be -- it would do its job."

It didn't take very long for the newshounds to grasp Lemaire's strategy. Actually, it was an adaptation of Bowman's blueprint, circa 1975-79. Go for goals while playing close attention to defense.

"Playing defense," Holik pointed out, "meant that we forwards had to backcheck; we had to prevent the other team from getting into our zone with freedom."

As October 1993 melded into November and November into the Winter holidays, it was abundantly apparent that Lamoriello's choice of Lemaire and Robinson was the perfect two-man parlay.

"I've never been on a team before," Stevens concluded, "where, when the coach is talking, everybody looks at him and listens. After two or so months we got the feeling that we could make trouble for our opponents.

"Our attitude was that once we got into January, we'd be in a good position to figure out how really good we were."

(COMING UP: STEVENS AND HIS MATES BECOME REAL WINNERS.)

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