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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Devils Go With Flying Frenchman

In Chapter 44 of Sundays with Stan, Stan Fischler dives more into Jacques Lemaire's coaching

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to

When he was a Hall of Fame center with the Montreal Canadiens, Jacques Lemaire was among the fleetest of the Cup-winning Flying Frenchmen.

He blended speed with savvy and when he assumed command of the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 1993, he brought his "Double-S" strategy with him.

Author Tim Sullivan, who wrote "Battle On The Hudson -- The Devils and the Rangers," studied Lemaire's technique in detail from Jacques' actual coaching debut on October 6, 1993, through his seasons in New Jersey.

According to Sullivan's study, The Lemaire modus operandi consisted of four essential points:

1. A stifling defense from the blue-liners to the forward-liners.

2. Constant cycling of the puck that maximized attack time in the enemy zone, producing many shot attempts.

3. Having the defense involved in the attack as much as possible.

4. Trusted, reliable goaltending that began with Chris Terreri and later was maintained by Martin Brodeur.

By January 1994 the club had taken on the confidence of winners. The general staff that included Lemaire, Larry Robinson, and goalie coach Jacques Caron had gained the team's confidence.

"Caron did wonders for me," Brodeur claimed. "I still was very young in the league and needed someone to point things out to me. Jacques (Caron) had played NHL goal and was my perfect instructor."

Likewise, a Hall of Fame defender like Robinson -- one of the most relaxed and likeable of hockey people -- had all the right credentials and impressed the players.

Ex-Canadien, Tom Chorske, had known the coaching trio and was impressed with their impact on the club.

Chorske: "It didn't take long for us to buy in and we knew that we were in the presence of great hockey minds."

Author Sullivan told a story of how defenseman Scott Stevens and forward Bill Guerin were chatting together one night in Stevens' living room.

"Scott turned to me," Guerin recalled, "and said, 'It feels like we're never going to lose, doesn't it?' It truly did and the confidence just kept growing."

That "Never Lose" mentality had spread through the room and was digested by forwards and defensemen alike.

Brick Township's gift to the team, Jim Dowd,, learned well from the coach.

Dowd: "Jacques told me about the importance of preparation. If you were prepared to do the job with Jacques, then you would have success. If you weren't willing to buy into his system, then you wouldn't have a job."

When a Hall of Famer passes down his wisdom as a player to a team he's now coaching, it doesn't always work. The Canadiens icon Maurice (Rocket) Richard tried coaching once and quit after the first game.

Richard played the game by instinct; Lemaire played it by insight and therefore was able to transmit sage playing ideas to his Devils.

"Jacques taught us about just what it would take to become champions," explained Mister Devil, Ken Daneyko. "He already has so much success in Montreal and we were hoping it would rub off on us.

"He got us all pulling the rope in the same direction. He reminded us that we can say it in our heads all day, but until we can feel it in our hearts, it will never happen."

By the middle of the 1993-94 season the term "fluke" was deleted from all scouting reports on the Devils. The Garden State skaters were not regarded as a Stanley Cup favorite but they now were respected,

Asked about his coaching style by sportswriter Ross Bernstein, author of "Raising Stanley," Lemaire replied that he coached the way his players "wanted him to coach." He was flexible as much as necessary.

Lemaire: "If my players wanted me to be tougher, then I'd get tougher. If they wanted me to ease up on them, then that was what I did. But it all depended on how they responded to what I was asking them."

One critic described the Lemaire Technique as "Responsible, smart, defensive hockey." The Devils limited the opposition's shots on goal, secure in the knowledge that either of the goalies would handle the rest.

Radio play-by-play man Mike Miller had one of the best lines of all when he described Lemaire's success thusly: "I've never been associated with a team that when they had a one-goal lead, it looked like a three-goal lead!"

It took a few months but the better the Devils played, the more whispers of criticism were heard; especially among a couple of Canadian writers. They derided what had been termed Lemaire's Neutral Zone Trap."

It wasn't anything illegal nor new. Scotty Bowman's four-Cup Canadiens --with Jacques at center -- practiced it to perfection in the late 1970s and now Lemaire's Devils were doing Ditto.

They inhabited the neutral zone with four skaters. while the fifth moved into the offensive zone. The hope was to create a turnover and dispatch the puck to the roaming fifth man for an offensive thrust.

Because it worked so well for Jacques, it inspired jealousy and foes uttered the term "Neutral Zone Trap" as some sort of put-down. But all that did was inspire a chuckle from Lemaire.

It media needling infuriated players such as Daneyko, Stevens and Guerin, the coach shook it off. He knew what he wanted and now it was up to the players to skate with his schemes.

"I knew that I had to sell my strategy (The Trap) to my players and get them to buy into it," said Lemaire. "I knew from experience that if things would not go well I'd have to find another route.

"And if my second route would prove to be no good, then I'd have to find a third. If I ran out of routes, that I'd be done as a coach. That's it."

Perhaps the biggest bit of irony was the charge that The Trap produced low scoring and often "boring" hockey, yet the facts refuted those claims.

The Devils were among the highest scorers and fans were filling the Meadowlands Arena as never before. As always, Jacques Be Nimble had the answers.

"I don't know one coach who doesn't want his players to score," Jacques would shoot back. "Scoring is a good thing. And it's good for your team. But you have to consider what's good for your team.

"You also have to think about what's best for your team and what you can do to get the most success possible from your players. Then, I had to sell that and get my guys to buy into it. When they did, we were in business."

Lemaire also employed a second assistant, Red Gendron, who had come out of the collegiate coaching ranks. Red would pitch in -- more or less -- as Robinson's helper as well as for Jacques. 

A good example -- and a favorite team story -- was when Lemaire wanted Boston's ace sniper, Cam Neely, covered before a big game with the Bruins and Claude Lemieux was the designated checker-of-Cam.

Lemaire asked Gendron to don a yellow jersey and be Neely for the experiment. Then, Jacques told Lemieux to do his thing. Here's how one of the Devils remembered the riotous scene:

"Claude chased Red around all practice and basically beat the crap out of him. After a while, Red got pissed and let Lemieux have it. and the two of them went at it for a while. It was hilarious."

Lemieux's agitating persona infuriated foes and, occasionally, teammates as well. One day Claude got under Scott Stevens' skin.

Jim Dowd: "All of a sudden Scott and Claude just started going at it in the locker room like two bulls. They wanted to kill each other for whatever reason. Luckily it was broken up and we got them separated.

"They were really competitive players. Sometimes those things happen but on the ice they were teammates and were all business. They put their differences aside and did what they could to help the team win." 

By the time the 1993-94 season reached the top of the homestretch the bond between the coach and his skaters was as tight as a firm handshake.

Mister Devil remembered it well:

Ken Daneyko: "One of the things we loved about Jacques was that he was teaching us how to be champions. I learned more from the first two months he was there than in the previous ten or eleven years I had been in the league.

"His understanding of the game on a technical basis with regard to positioning and game planning and efficiency was off the charts. Then there was his passion for the game. Unbelievable!"

One of the brainstorms that motivated Jacque had to do with his goaltending. At training camp he figured that the experienced Chris Terreti would be his main man between the pipes.

As promising as he was, Martin Brodeur still had to prove to the coaching staff that he could be counted on as a starter.

"It didn't take long for Marty to win over everybody," said Bobby Holik. "Now Jacques had decisions to make."

Members of the (mythical) Goaltenders Union already had the scoop on Brodeur, including a foe who'd face the youngster many times.

"Marty already was one heckuva goaltender by the time he made it to the NHL," said Rangers netminder Mike Richter.

Tim Sullivan, writing in Battle On The Hudson: "Brodeur was clearly among the best prospects in the world by the time he became property of the Devils, and a player who represented the new age of his craft."

In the end, it would be young Brodeur who would determine how far the New Jersey Devils would climb in 1993-94 -- but with a lot of help from his mentor, Monsieur Lemaire!

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