Video: Jacques Lemaire won eight Stanley Cups with Canadiens
"Maybe it's how you're raised," Lemaire said, addressing his feelings of forever having to prove himself. "Maybe it's how you're raised. I really don't know. I was always afraid I was going to lose my spot on the team. It wasn't until my last couple of years that I felt, 'I'm here now.' "
No matter his prodigious skill, no matter his impressive offensive talent -- he was almost a point-a-game man, scoring 835 points in 853 games -- Lemaire often conveyed a fear that he was one bad game, maybe just a few bad shifts, from the end of his days in Montreal. He was hypersensitive, reacting sometimes bitterly to criticism or slights, real or imagined. But when the industrious forward put his mind to it, which was every time he laced his skates, he was a threat to score whenever he touched the puck.
Lemaire learned responsibility from an early age, leaving school to work after his father died. The native of LaSalle, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, could skate like the wind and was a terror around the net; as a 17-year-old wing, he had 41 goals and 63 assists in 42 games in 1962-63 for the Junior B Lachine Maroons.
The Canadiens took notice and watched him develop with their junior team. He scored 25 goals in each of the next two seasons before finishing with 41 goals and 52 assists in 48 games in 1965-66.
Games: 853 | Goals: 366 | Assists: 469 | Points: 835
The final step of Lemaire's development came in 1966-67, when he was a bit under the radar with 19 goals and 30 assists in 69 games for the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League.
With the Apollos, a tremendous feeder for the Canadiens, Lemaire was joined by goalie Rogie Vachon, defensemen Serge Savard and Carol Vadnais and forwards Danny Grant, Garry Monahan and Mickey Redmond.
If the decrease in scoring gave Lemaire pause, he heeded coach Ray Kinasewich's advice to focus on his defensive game to become an excellent two-way forward.
He was still a wing when he arrived with the Canadiens in 1967-68, and was shifted to the middle because of an injury to veteran center Henri Richard. Inserted between Bobby Rousseau and Dick Duff, Lemaire scored 22 goals and assisted on 20 in his rookie season, finishing second to Derek Sanderson of the Boston Bruins for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.
"When I went to the Canadiens camp that (1967-68) season, I felt pretty good," Lemaire told author Dick Irvin Jr. in his 1991 book "The Habs."
"The team had a lot of centers -- [Jean] Beliveau, [Ralph] Backstrom, Richard -- so Serge Savard told me to ask if I could play left wing. That's where I was when the season started but I didn't play much. Then Henri got hurt and they put me at center and I stayed there from then on."
Richard returned to the team but complained to coach Toe Blake about losing ice time to an upstart rookie.
"Henri left the team for about a week," Lemaire said. "Toe told me not to pay attention to what was going on. 'Just play your game,' Toe kept telling me, so I did."
Playing every shift as though it was his last, Lemaire caught fire during the 1968 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens avenging their upset loss the previous spring in the Cup Final to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 22-year-old scored seven goals, including two game-winners, with six assists in 13 postseason games, and the Canadiens won their 15th championship.
Lemaire was moved to center for good, and some feared he would spend too much time looking for his wings and ignore his gift for scoring. He had worked diligently to perfect a thunderous slap shot, regarded as the second-heaviest in the NHL behind Bobby Hull's, his power honed as a junior with hours spent shooting a steel puck.
But after Lemaire scored 32 goals as a two-way center in 1969-70, captain Beliveau told The Hockey News, "Lemaire is the big goal-scorer on this club now."
Lemaire's anxiety about being returned to the minors was ill-founded; he would be too valuable to the Canadiens to play anywhere else again. After his 42-point rookie season, he racked up 60 or more points in eight of his 11 seasons to come. Lemaire scored a career-high 44 goals in 1972-73 and came close to 100 points for the first of three times, finishing with 95. He scored 92 in 1974-75 and 97 in 1977-78, his second-to-last NHL season.
Lemaire's offensive prowess wasn't hurt by the fact he was rarely in the penalty box; he was assessed 217 penalty minutes.
He truly shone in the playoffs, scoring 61 goals with 78 assists in 145 games. In 1977 and 1979, he scored goals that clinched the Stanley Cup title for the Canadiens.
Coach Scotty Bowman helped shape Lemaire's game in the early 1970s, putting him between Yvan Cournoyer and Pete Mahovlich, and he earned plenty of penalty-kill time with the latter, soon becoming one of Montreal's most dependable players without the puck.
His clutch performances made him one of the Canadiens' most important players during their 1970s dynasty. On New Year's Eve 1975, Lemaire played one of the best games of his life in Montreal's 3-3 tie against the Soviet Union's visiting Central Red Army.
"Once he got into the playoffs," linemate Steve Shutt said, "Lemaire was probably one of the best players I've ever seen."
It was between Guy Lafleur and Shutt that Lemaire would be most famous, feeding his wingers much like Elmer Lach had in the 1940s playing with Rocket Richard and Blake on the "Punch Line."
"I didn't mind playing with Lafleur," Lemaire said in the 2008 book "Habs Heroes." "I used to tell Shutt all the time that once he got the puck, the only way I was going to get it back was to go to the front of the net because he wasn't going to pass it."
Lemaire was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, five years after his final NHL game, but by then he was already deep into his second career. He got into coaching in 1979 as a player/coach with HC Sierre in Switzerland and returned to North America two years later as an assistant with SUNY Plattsburgh. In 1982, he took the reins of a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League expansion team in Longueuil, near Montreal, taking it to the league finals in its first season.
Lemaire preached a style that focused on defense, which had served him well as a player, a suffocating system that was effective if the antithesis of the freewheeling Canadiens of the 1970s.
He used it in the NHL, first behind the bench of the Canadiens and more famously as coach of the New Jersey Devils, winning the Stanley Cup in 1994-95, his second season directing the Devils, when he defeated Bowman, who was coaching the Detroit Red Wings.
Lemaire moved on to the expansion Minnesota Wild in 2000-01 for eight seasons, returning to New Jersey for two more before stepping away from the game. He came back in 2015 to join old friend and former Devils boss Lou Lamoriello with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a special assignment coach.
If Lemaire's playmaking career could be defined by an assist, it would be one that he earned in the legendary "Too Many Men" game in the 1979 Semifinals against the Boston Bruins. Lafleur took a drop pass from Lemaire and beat goalie Gilles Gilbert with a power-play blast that tied that Game 7 with 1:14 left in regulation. The Canadiens won in overtime to advance to the Final, where they defeated the New York Rangers in five games.
It was this kind of silky playmaking that Lemaire valued as much as his linemates.
"One year I scored 44 goals, but I wasn't that kind of player," he said of the 1972-73 season. "My mind was not on scoring. My mind was on everything. Backchecking and making a play was huge for me, even more than scoring.
"I saw a lot of guys who had tough times to score and I just got really happy when I could make that guy score. You know, bring the goalie on your side, pass it across and the guy puts it in. That, too, is a skill."
But for all that Lemaire brought to the ice on eight Canadiens championship teams, Beliveau would say that his former teammate's work as a coach and executive was even greater.
"There's no doubt that Jacques is one of the foremost students of the game," Beliveau said. "He was a hockey intellectual, but few people realized this until after his playing career was over. Jacques constantly brought out the best in Guy Lafleur, but his post-playing contributions have proved even more important."
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