Lemaire era is over for WildJacques Lemaire made it official Saturday night: The only coach the Wild has ever known is stepping down, although he also said he still loves coaching and is not retiring
By: By Michael Russo, Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Superior Telegram
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Jacques Lemaire era in Minnesota ended Saturday night.
Lemaire, the only coach the Wild has ever known, made it official after a bittersweet 6-3 season-ending victory over Columbus: Lemaire coached his final game with the Wild.
"I think it's time for the players to get a new coach and myself to look for other stuff," Lemaire said. "I always said there'll be a time. There comes a time that you know it's the right time to go, and I know this. I had a great time, man. I had eight great years."
Lemaire, 63, said this is not a retirement. He said he is not "tired of dealing with players" and still has a love for coaching and a drive to maybe coach elsewhere.
"It's exciting. It's an exciting job," he said. "I was behind the bench just before the game there, and I felt I was getting really tight because it's something I've done for 15 years and I like it and I have to go.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I want to stay in the game, but I don't know what I'm going to do."
In the past, Lemaire said he would only coach in another city if he had a relationship with the general manager like he had with Wild GM Doug Risebrough.
Lemaire is a former teammate of Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, and the Habs have an opening. Asked if he would return to Montreal, where he coached two seasons from 1983 to '85 and played 12 as a Hall of Fame center, Lemaire laughed.
"I won't start to mention any teams because I'm still under contract in a way," Lemaire said. "But I'll be looking for a job. I don't know what type. But I'll be looking."
Asked if he would want to stay with the Wild in another capacity, Lemaire said, "I don't think it'll be the case."
Lemaire, a winner of 11 Stanley Cups, brought with him credibility when he was hired in 2000. NHL coaches usually have three-year shelf-lives. Lemaire lasted nine, including the lockout.
And from Day 1, despite the Wild fielding a team that on many nights was less talented than its opposition, Lemaire somehow got it to compete almost nightly.
No expansion team since 1991 won more games in its first eight seasons than Minnesota (293).
"He set the bar really high for all of us," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said. "His ability to take a midpack team and have them compete every day at a high level is to me more impressive than taking a good team and making it great. If you give him a top team, he'd win all the time.
"To me, he's one of the best coaches in the league -- ever."
Veteran winger Andrew Brunette said it will be weird to no longer see Lemaire running the Wild bench.
"He's meant everything to this franchise," Brunette said. "Keeping it competitive from the start, just the system he put in place, the accountability, the development, he did a heck of a job here. It's going to be sad. Every time he's behind the bench, you've got a real good chance of winning."
Who's the Wild's next coach?
Risebrough declined to comment after the game. A news conference is expected in St. Paul on Monday.
It's been speculated that Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine will be Lemaire's heir apparent. But there are other quality coaches out there, from Peter Laviolette to Guy Carbonneau to Tom Renney to Wild assistants Mario Tremblay and Mike Ramsey. But maybe others become available in the coming weeks, such as MacTavish, Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Dallas' Dave Tippett.
Constantine might be the eventual guy, but with such a critical decision, one would think Risebrough will do his due diligence and conduct an all-out search.
Tension with players
In recent days, Lemaire has looked like a man with one foot out the door. He admitted Saturday he made his decision awhile ago.
Lemaire's assistants ran most every morning skate the past six weeks. And Friday morning, with the Wild nine hours from playing its gazillionth biggest game of the season against Nashville, Lemaire addressed the media with his car keys in his right hand.
There had been clear tension behind the scenes.
In recent days, players stood up to Lemaire in the locker room. At one point during a practice huddle Thursday, one veteran actually cursed at him in front of his teammates.
Players were disenchanted he didn't use Marian Gaborik on a 4-on-3 overtime power play in a must-win vs. Vancouver on March 31. In Dallas in March, players were furious the coaching staff took the bus back to the hotel while a dozen of them were left at the arena.
He has been in a rift with 20-year-old James Sheppard, one that came to a head in February when Sheppard asked Lemaire to loosen his grip.
"There's not one guy I didn't have friction with, except maybe Bruno -- we were always on the same page," said Lemaire, meaning this was not abnormal in a coach-player relationship. "But the other guys, there's always something. And sometimes when you like a guy it's worse, because you want him to grow, and then you're on his [butt]."
Players also didn't like being one of the NHL's few teams that practice in the road city after flying, and they didn't like how few days off they get.
Lately, Lemaire has voiced frustration during unsolicited rants to the media.
Two weeks ago, Lemaire snapped at how some Wild players were not taking seriously their "responsibility to get prepared." But then he added, "I'll take some blame ... because I'm not perfect."
Out of nowhere last week, Lemaire seethed about players complaining he doesn't give enough days off. Then, he seemed to inadvertently reveal a run-in he had with a player: "Us, we never get optionals. Us, never get days off. That's what I hear from them: 'We don't get days off.' When I gave them a day off, they went like this, 'Are you sick?' That's exactly what they did to me. 'Are you sick?'
"... I told him, 'Would it be nice just to play 82 games? Would that be nice? No practice. Could go shopping, could go check my insurance, shop for new cars?' That'd be a great life. But I don't know if it would work, though. Lot of L's."
Interesting, eh? Who's "him?"
Great coach to cover
I loved dealing with Lemaire. Selfishly, I wish he'd return just for the quote. The guy is hysterical. I've covered a ton of coaches, and I've learned more from him than anybody.
I can't imagine hockey without Lemaire, or Lemaire without hockey.
But it was time. Injuries, especially to Gaborik and Brent Burns, killed the Wild this season, but Lemaire also lamented often how he just couldn't get this group to play the way he wanted until it was too late.
Jacques Lemaire-coached teams are built to play anybody tight, yet in December and March, this version of the Wild routinely found itself down 2-0 or 3-0. That tore him apart.
Listening to Lemaire after those games, you could sense it was tearing him apart.
"We had one line all year. We tried at times to make two lines. It didn't work," Lemaire said. "We went with one line and we had our defense, lucky we had those guys [Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron], that brought us more offense. We're not far from last year, don't forget this, in goals for, and we didn't have Gaby and we lost [Brent Burns]."
This is huge offseason for the Wild. It just didn't make sense anymore to continue going year to year with Lemaire, especially with the perception that his defensive style was inhibiting the Wild from reeling in the big fish like other hockey hotbeds.
He seemed to indicate he was told it was time for a change.
"I had to make [this decision] for certain reasons," said Lemaire, declining to clarify.
-- Copyright (c) 2009, Star Tribune, Minneapolis/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services