| Jacques Lemaire never mentions his past successes when dealing with his current team. |
He’s one of those people whose dreams are still bigger than his memories. I heard this the other day. Not about Jacques. But a statement, that is very profound and speaks to what he’s all about. Which says a lot. He’s won 11 Stanley Cups. He knows he has more to offer. He can bring more to the game still, after 11 Stanley Cups. Perhaps that’s why he signed that extension last week.
Jacques first coached me my rookie year, 1997-98, in New Jersey. It was a real veteran team. We had some good leadership – Dave Andreychuk, Scott Stevens. Guys who knew how to win.
Maybe it was just my impression, because it was my first year, and I didn’t know otherwise, but Jacques seemed different then than he does now. I honestly don’t know if I ever saw him smile. We won 48 games and finished with 107 points. We won the Atlantic Division. We lost in the first round of the playoffs. And he resigned.
That’s the thing about Jacques: he knows when it’s his time to go. He believed he’d taken us as far as he could. Which is a great thing. Most people hold on if they have something they really enjoy. I think Jacques had a confidence in himself. He knew he could go elsewhere and stay in the game.
Due in part to the foundation laid by Jacques, we went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2000. Scott Stevens was our captain and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. I remember watching Scott, around the time of his retirement, in an interview. And he paid the ultimate compliment to Jacques. He said he did not know what it took to win until Jacques Lemaire came to the organization. And that is very true. Scotty was a great player, a future Hall of Famer. He understood, under Jacques, what it took to win as a team.
That summer I was traded to the Wild, and I came in to what used to be the Radisson Hotel, on Kellogg Boulevard. Doug Risebrough and Jacques were waiting in a suite sitting on a couch. I could tell right away that Jacques was more approachable. He had a refreshed look. Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe I was viewing him in New Jersey through a first-year player’s eyes. But he looked like he was in a spot where he really wanted to be.
One of my biggest concerns was him adapting. I knew what he was like in New Jersey. We were never supposed to lose a game. My concern, probably shared by a lot of other people, was: How would he take this? He’s a winner. He’s won. That’s all he’s done in his life.
And then he did an unbelievable job at it. I saw him coach different. In New Jersey we had a veteran team. He didn’t have to explain the foundation of hard work and teamwork and team focus. Here, he knew those were the goals to begin with. And I think he loved it. He loved the idea he could do that. He’s a teacher. Like he said last week, he loves seeing guys make a pass. He knows he’s had a hand in that pass.
| Lemaire can analyze his players and how they’re feeling two shifts into a game. |
And the greatest thing he did was he didn’t over-coach. Coaches over-coach. It’s what they do. But it’s not what he does. Every game, all Jacques wants is to give each player and the team three or four points.
“This is what the other team will do,” he’d say. He’d pick out the most important thing about the opponent, something that would make the difference between winning and losing. And that’s it. That’s all he would tell us.
He has a complete understanding of what’s going on on the ice, what the other team might bring. He sifts through all of that and finds what matters and tells the players. The rest he takes upon himself to take care of.
On the bench, during the game, he understands his players, whether a guy has it that night or not. Other coaches may realize it in the third period. He realizes it within two shifts. He can look in a player’s eyes, or at his body language, or his posture, and see it. He’ll know if the guy is on or not quite on. And he’ll just play someone else a little bit more. It’s not personal. He doesn’t get mad. He knows guys will have an off game. For the good of the team that guy plays a little less.
And when the team is going well? The year we started 8-1-2, in 2002-03, he never really mentioned how well we were playing. He knew we started great. He just allowed us to build our confidence, and he kept us focused by making sure we practiced well. We’d do drills in practice, and we wouldn’t always understand why we were doing a drill. Come the next game, we’d know why. The drills were often tailored to the next opponent. I remember, on the road one night that year, one of my teammates, Cliff Ronning, told me, “After 18 years, Jacques is the best coach I’ve ever had.” I’d heard Sean O’Donnell say the same thing. Curtis Leschyshyn, same thing.
When we fell behind three games to one against Colorado, and again against Vancouver in the playoffs, all Jacques wanted was for us to show what we’d shown all year. Jacques has tremendous respect for the game. The only thing that makes him angry is if guys don’t respect the game. He wants guys who don’t take shortcuts. Who work as hard as they can. Who take joy in playing in the NHL. Mistakes he can live with. He wants guys who love what they’re doing and appreciate the opportunity.
I think he thinks the game has given him great things. He has shown the game great respect and the game has turned around and shown him respect. His only message to us was: Put on a good show. Show the people you belong. It may not mean winning. It will be by showing we belong. How do you do that? Work hard. Respect the position you’re in.
And that’s why he’s still coaching. He respects the game, and he knows he still has more to offer. And the best part? He’s never, ever, in my five years playing for him, ever talked in a meeting about what he’s done, where he’s been, how many Cups he’s won, his old teammates. He’s never thrown that upon players. I think that’s incredible.
That’s what great coaches and great leaders do. They always look forward. And I will say this about him, too. There’s something about Jacques. He carries himself in this amazing way. Each day, whether in the locker room or in a press conference, he always walks in to the room the right way. You know he’s there.
And you respect him for it.
Brad Bombardir, the Wild’s Director of Community Partnerships, played for Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey (1997-98) and Minnesota (2000-01 to 2003-04). The retired NHL defenseman captained the Wild on seven occasions, most of any player in team history. Chris Snow, the Wild’s Director of Hockey Operations, covered the Wild for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune during the 2003-04 season.