"Jacques Lemaire was the best coach I ever played for --
And nobody is in second place. -- Bobby Holik
Holik knows more than a little bit about major league coaching.
Bobby not only skated for the Devils but three other major league teams over an 18-year NHL career.
"There was something special about Jacques in every way," Holik added. "I respected his hockey mind and the manner in which he handled us players."
That "special" quality precisely was what Lou Lamoriello had in mind when he chose to replace Herb Brooks as New Jersey's new bench boss in the spring of 1993.
Brooks was a popular choice when originally picked for the New Jersey gig but Herb's 1980 Olympic magic had evaporated. Writing in "Battle on the Hudson," author Tim Sullivan agreed that Herb was the wrong guy.
"The pieces for a better result were in place," Sullivan asserted, "Lamoriello just needed the right person to put together the puzzle."
Lamoriello: "We felt we had the talent, and what happened in the playoff series in the previous seasons (first with Tom McVie and then Brooks) was that we got close but we just didn't get it done.
"What I felt was lacking was belief. Not belief in each other, but belief that we could win. The mind is a very powerful tool. I wanted someone who was both a terrific competitor as a player who had top coaching ability."
Lou knew all there was to know about Lemaire as multi-Cup-winning Hall of Fame player, as coach, as assistant general manager and as a person.
"Jacques is one of a kind," said Lou, "but that wasn't a league secret. That's why he was with the Canadiens front office. (Montreal g.m.) Serge Savard knew how valuable he was. But it was worth a try for me."
Larry Robinson, Jacques' Canadiens teammate, was a first-hand witness to Lemaire's legerdemain during the Habs dynastic (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979) Cup years.
"Guy Lafleur may have been the superstar face of those four Cup-winners," said Robinson,"but -- as center -- Lemaire was the guy feeding Guy the puck."
Following the 1978-79 season, Jacques retired as an active player and surprised most of the hockey world by surfacing as a coach in Sierre, Switzerland, of all places. The move typified his eclectic qualities.
"When I made my decision to retire I felt I had done the right thing," Lemaire recalled. "I played twelve years for Montreal and we won the Stanley Cup eight times. I contributed to all of that."
Lamoriello knew that Jacques was on the level. So did historians such as Dick Irvin, Jr. Irvin's superb book, "The Habs," chronicles Lemaire's continuous clutch performances.
"Jacques scored some of the biggest goals in league history," said Irvin, "and one of them in a huge upset."
That was in 1971 when the defending champion Bruins were skating toward a second straight Cup. But Jacques and the Canadiens got in the way -- in a most unusual manner.
"It was the second game of the series" Lemaire recalled. "We had lost the first game in Boston and were trailing, 5-1, late in the second period in the second game."
A late Henri Richard goal made it 5-2 before the middle period had ended. When the third period started Lemaire said, "Let's get one more" and his mates did; reaching to 4-5, still in Boston's favor.
Then, Jacques Be Nimble delivered. He intercepted a Bobby Orr pass and jetted goalward on a clean breakaway. As it happened, Lemaire had the series-turning-point puck on his stick.
Lemaire: "You don't get a breakaway that long very often and when I was going down the ice I was thinking about the score. I didn't think all that much about what I was going to do, I shot top corner -- and in!"
The Habs won the game and the series in Game Seven. They went to Game Seven of the Final against Chicago and trailed 2-0 midway through the second period when Lemaire was Ole Reliable once more.
"I skated about ten feet past the red line and was tired and wanted to change," Jacques remembered. "At times like that I seldom shot into the corner, usually at the net.
"That's what I did -- about a 60-footer and turned to go to the bench. Then, I heard some noise from the crowd. I looked back and the red light was on. I never saw the puck go in."
Neither did goalie Tony Esposito. The Blackhawks faded while Lemaire had galvanized his mates. The Habs got two more goals and Montreal had won yet another Cup; in large part thanks to Jacques Lemaire.
Lamoriello liked to tell reporters that the one team that impressed him over the decades more than others was Les Canadiens and their champion their championship experiences; later translated to coaching gigs.
"I wanted Jacques because, by that time, he had plenty of coaching behind him, including with Montreal," said Lamoriello. "First thing I did was make sure Jacques wanted to try coaching again. And he did."
Lou's next move was to contact Savard who valued Lemaire as his aide de camp. Likewise, Serge would never lasso his buddy to the Habs if there was a chance for Jacques to move into a bigger job.
But there had to be complete secrecy about the Devils intentions and Lou saw to that. With no fuss or fanfare, Lamoriello explained the situation to Savard and finally persuaded his NHL opposite to release Jacques.
Normally in such a hockey-mad city as Montreal, a news leak would take place and Lou's decision to hire Lemaire would have been all over the media. Secrecy was maintained right up to a June 1993 press conference.
Members of the reportorial corps had speculated about several likely suspects but nobody -- not a soul -- suggested it would be Jacques Lemaire.
Suddenly a door opened at the back of the press room and Lou entered with Jacques Lemaire at his side. Beaming with confidence, Lou made the announcement.
"Jacques Lemaire will be our new coach and Larry Robinson will be his assistant," said Lamoriello. "Jacques brings impeccable credentials to the Devils which are recognized throughout the entire NHL."
Sullivan: "Robinson's mission was to get a talented, balanced set of defensemen to take another step forward in the Lamoriello process."
Seasoned reporters who had covered the Devils since their move from Denver to East Rutherford reacted first with surprise followed by enthusiasm, both publicly and privately.
They huddled around Lou and remarked that he seemed unusually enthused about his choice.
"I can remember when I sat down with Jacques Lemaire for the first time," The Boss elaborated. "We talked about him coming to coach here. After that conversation, I knew he was the man to do it."
Lemaire was "the man to do it" because he would impart a defensive system that would compliment the club's offensive arsenal. Lamoriello was confident that Jacques would get the most out of every man on the roster.
From the moment Lemaire's hiring hit the airwaves and the papers, Devils players immediately expressed what Lou had hoped for -- the belief that under Jacques they could win.
Gifted young forward Bill Guerin expressed the majority opinion when he declared, "Something changed overnight." Teammate Tom Chorske seconded the motion.
"Jacques and Larry brought instant credibility," said Chorske. "We knew we were in good hands."
Within days, Lemaire added former NHL goaltender Jacques Caron as his netminding puck professor who'd directly work with the veteran Chris Terreri and a young talent named Martin Brodeur.
"This trio will bring instant respect when they walk into the locker room," promised Lamoriello. "Time will prove that I made the right decision."
Lou's vow was made early in the summer of 1993. Training camp would open in a few months and then the hockey world would learn just how right Lamoriello was with his coaching choice!