"I'm going back to my hole," Jacques Lemaire said way back on April 2, taking a smile with him to his office after a morning practice.
So much of what Lemaire said over the past few weeks had been fed through the prism of the question, "Is he leaving?" and this one was no different. The comment was one of many that, like a horoscope, led us to believe what we were thinking anyway. Lately, his musings were considered to mean anything from nothing to, well, something
. Lemaire dropped these little bon mots here and there, casually, officially, and in postgame comments. The press and fans picked them up and held them against to the dented framework of a 2009-10 season dashed largely by injuries and a close finish that reinforced Lemaire's credentials as a coach.
Lemaire's going back to his hole spoke to the notion that his next act, with its wine and cigars and warm Florida sun, beckoned.
Last Friday night, after the Wild beat the Predators at Xcel Energy Center to keep alive its playoff hopes for another few hours, he let it be known he'd made up his mind on his future. That was another hint. Reporters furiously scribbled on their note pads. Just what this future entailed, he would not say at the time. He was typically coy.
When asked playfully how interested he might be to witness the potential of a team that for long stretches was without Marian Gaborik, Brent Burns, Owen Nolan and Pierre-Marc Bouchard
, and on that night was without Bouchard, Burns and Nick Schultz, he said only this: "I'm curious, but I'm not that
curious. Know what I'm saying?"
Reading between the lines, many believed the margin between those lines was narrowing.
As we all found out in rather impromptu fashion Saturday night after the Wild's season-ending win, Lemaire put to rest the speculation, telling, among others, WCCO Radio's Tom Reid, that he felt it was time to step down as the only coach the Wild has ever known.
And on Monday, at one of the most crowded and occasionally sublime press conferences Xcel Energy Center has hosted, Lemaire made it official.
"I felt really at home here," he said toward the end of just over seven minutes of thanking Doug Risebrough for his unyielding support, the staff for their collective heart and effort, the coaches ("I have to thank you 1,000 times"), the players ("They're the guys that make me look good") and the press. "The most important is the fans ... I just want to thank you again, because I really felt your support."
The comments are heartfelt, often funny, and they scratched one layer below the Press Conference Jacques so many of us have come to know. If you haven't seen his comments yet, set aside a few minutes, then click this link
for the Wild TV version.
Lemaire then turned the mic over to Risebrough, who told a few stories
illustrating Lemaire's commitment to humble excellence and sense of humor. (A story that "crystalized" what Lemaire meant to the foundation of the franchise begins at 0:25, see the 1:38 mark for a great laugh that came out of a Rice Park contract negotiation, and an even better laugh at the end of a story that begins at 4:13 regarding Lemaire successfully avoiding the NHL awards ceremony with a flimsy excuse.)
Afterward, there were smiles and laughs and memories, handshakes and even a hug. There was also a bittersweet hue to some of the conversations with assistants Mario Tremblay and Mike Ramsey.
"I'll miss the guys I work with, the people, the fans, the action, the players, and the success of the individual," Lemaire said.
Players certainly saw more sides to Lemaire than the press did, but he earned their respect.
"Having had the opportunity to play for Jacques, I can say that I never felt unprepared or overmatched for any game," said former Wild captain Brad Bombardir. "The simplicity and delivery of his message in preparation for a game was unlike that of any other coach that I ever played for. You always knew that you were armed with the knowledge that would make the difference between winning and losing."
Lemaire lives his hockey life in the space between those two worlds, winning and losing, trying to turn every grain of sand against the tide of "the little things" that creep into players and shifts and games and seasons. "That's it," he would say when he saw the tide flowing in the right direction, even for the smallest of fixes. Body position. Being "on the puck." Stick position. When, exactly, to move the puck. Details.
No one would ever accuse Lemaire of not thinking about something -- from the implications of optional practices, to flight times, to a question being asked, to the myriad line combinations that could make a play-by-play guy's head spin. He would break down the merits of a road hotel every which way from Sunday if you asked him. After all, technically, that was a hockey conversation.
Lemaire saw flaws in a lot of things, though, and when it came to hockey, he wanted to fix them. He wanted players to see that their shared effort really did work. In such a fluky game, with its bouncing pucks and on-the-fly line changes, varied talent all over the ice, asking this is asking for the ridiculous to aspire to the sublime, but that seems to have driven him.
Lemaire was just looking for the right mix, of everything. Assistant GM Tommy Thompson said Monday he thought part of what moves Lemaire is "just the satisfaction of making something work."
It's no wonder Lemaire has mentioned he may not be fully ready to retire, but, at this time, thought it best to step down.
"The team needs this," he said.
The Wild will now turn its attention to finding another coach to guide the franchise.
"Jacque's era has ended," Risebrough said in closing. "The players are better today because of Jacques Lemaire. On behalf of the franchise, on behalf of the players, on behalf of the ownership, past and present -- Craig and Bob -- thank you for the commitment of making this winner."
Risebrough and the front office will now turn its attention to finding a successor. Reflective earlier in the press conference when considering the Wild's 2008-09 season ( click here
for the comments on the 2008-09 season, which covers his own regrets and "lots of positives"), Risebrough insisted the coaching search will not be a rush job.
In fact, the timetable he mentioned was between two and two-and-a-half months -- up to a month of internal communication and another month of soliciting and selecting the second
coach in Wild franchise history.