Happy birthday to former Canadiens Hall of Fame player and coach Jacques Lemaire, who turned 67 on Friday.
When Red Fisher did a feature series in 2009 on the Top 20 players he covered during his career, Lemaire came in at No. 12.
Here’s Red’s story explaining why:
PUBLISHED IN THE GAZETTE ON OCT. 9, 2009
The Canadiens were in Philadelphia, where they had just completed a surprising victory over the Broad Street Bullies, but Jacques Lemaire was unhappy – an astonishing reaction from a player who had scored three goals on this night against a rough-and-tumble team that normally struck fear into the hearts of the opposition. The colour was high in Lemaire’s cheeks while answering questions from reporters.
He had a question for me: “Did I miss the team bus tonight?” he snapped.
The question wasn’t an unreasonable one, because earlier in the day my pregame report on the Canadiens’ visit to Philadelphia noted that Lemaire normally did not play well against the Flyers … that more often than not he “missed the team bus” against a team that made a career out of winning with intimidation.
People in my business learn quickly that professional athletes rarely thank you when they’re applauded and almost always react unhappily when they’re criticized. Lemaire’s question didn’t merit a reply.
Much later, he approached me on the team charter: “Can we talk?” he asked.
“No problem,” he was told.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he suggested quietly.
“No sweat.” “Can we talk about the game?” he asked.
Lemaire, the player and later a head coach with the Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild, was thin-skinned to an uncommon degree, but that doesn’t diminish what he meant to the Canadiens en route to a Hall of Fame career. He was the complete package … always in control of his game, scoring the big goals, making the big pass, always doing the right thing, killing penalties. No player I have known studied the game harder.
Accomplished as Lemaire was on eight Stanley Cup teams with the Canadiens, it may very well be he was even better as a coach – first as an assistant and head coach in Montreal, then as a Cup-winning head coach with the Devils.
Unlike his teammates, Lemaire would skate miles to avoid controversy, always saying the right things, always doing the right things – all of it dedicated to becoming the best player he could be and beyond that, the best coach he could be – as he hopes to be again now that he’s returned this season as head coach with the Devils.
There was a night when the Canadiens were on the road, and assistant coach Lemaire was muttering furiously about one of his players: Guy Lafleur. They had done great things together during their playing days, but now they were on different sides.
Assistant coaches normally are seen, but not heard.
That’s the head coach’s job, but the sight of Lafleur enjoying a quiet drink in the team’s hotel lobby inflamed Lemaire. He berated his former teammate in full view of several people – which is something even head coaches don’t do. The exchange between the two was long and loud. It was not the finest moment for either of them.
Lemaire, the player, didn’t seek attention. Lemaire, the coach, always has insisted on it from his players. Those who didn’t paid a price for it.
I’m talking about a player who scored 366 goals and 469 assists in 853 regular-season games. Do the math: that’s only a hair short of a point-per-game average. About a player who had 139 points, including 61 goals, in 145 playoff games. Players with those numbers take their rightful place in the Hall of Fame, which is what Lemaire did in 1984.
What made Lemaire special was that he was an avid student of the game. He would ask of himself: Where did I go wrong? What did I do right? Coaching was on his mind throughout the years he played.
In his 12 seasons with the Canadiens, Lemaire never scored fewer than 20 goals. In his last season (1978-79), he scored 24 goals and added 31 assists in 50 games. He could have played several more seasons, but it didn’t fit into his master plan, which was to play with and coach a team in Switzerland for two years. He returned home to coach the junior Longueuil Chevaliers in 1982-83, before rejoining the Canadiens as assistant coach the year after, and then replacing Bob Berry as head coach for the final 17 games.
Remarkably, Lemaire led the Canadiens to the Wales Conference final, and beat the four-time Cup champion New York Islanders in the first two games. I still remember Chris Nilan telling me after the first two games that he planned to give his father, Henry, his Stanley Cup ring.
“Whoa,” Nilan was told. “Your team has won two, you’ve got to win four for the Cup.”
“We’ll win … we’ll win,”
The Canadiens lost the next four.
One of my favourite stories goes back to the day before the series finale. At noon on game day, Lemaire stopped for a chat – and a request.
“Would you talk to Perry Turnbull for me?” he asked.
Turnbull had joined the Canadiens early that season in what was considered a blockbuster trade: Turnbull from St. Louis for Doug Wickenheiser, Gilbert Delorme and Greg Paslawski. Turnbull had scored 14 goals and added eight assists in his 32 games with the Blues. The Canadiens needed offence, and Turnbull was their man. Alas, he slumped to six goals and seven assists in 40 games in Montreal. He was no better in the playoffs, with only one goal and two assists in the first two series. By then, Lemaire had seen enough. Turnbull was a healthy scratch for the first five games of the conference final.
“Bob Gainey has a very bad shoulder,” Lemaire said. “I don’t think he can play. I’m going to have to dress Turnbull.”
“Seems to me you should be the guy who talks to him,” Lemaire was told.
“Sometimes, players will listen more to somebody who’s been around a long time than he will to his coach,” Lemaire said with a shrug.
I tracked down Turnbull at the hotel’s news stand.
“Perry, what’s going on with you lately?”
“What do you mean?”
“Before you joined the Canadiens, you came into Montreal and scored two goals. You had two fights and won ‘em both. You were far and away the best player on either team that night. Now look at you … you haven’t even been dressed for any of the games against the Islanders!”
“Geez,” Turnbull said, “I was crazy that night. It’ll never happen again.”
As it developed, Gainey played that night with his damaged shoulder the way he always played: all out. The Canadiens lost 4-1, and the Islanders went on to the final seeking a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. After the finale, Lemaire waited patiently outside the room while Islanders head coach Al Arbour talked with the media.
“I’m going in there and tell the press the Islanders are going to beat the Edmonton Oilers,” Lemaire said.
“They’re not going to beat the Oilers,” coach Lemaire said with a grin.
The Islanders lost in five games.
RED’S TOP 20 CANADIENS
No. 1: Jean Béliveau
No. 2: Maurice Richard
No. 3: Guy Lafleur
No. 4: Doug Harvey
No. 5: Henri Richard
No. 6: Larry Robinson
No. 7: Bernard Geoffrion
No. 8: Bob Gainey
No. 9: Dickie Moore
No. 10: Serge Savard
No. 11: Yvan Cournoyer
No. 12: Jacques Lemaire
No. 13: Steve Shutt
No. 14: Guy Lapointe
No. 15: Chris Chelios
No. 16: Peter Mahovlich
No. 17: Claude Provost
No. 18: Mats Naslund
No. 19: J.C. Tremblay
No. 20: John Ferguson