Thankfully there was no more pain or drama than neccesary involved with Jacques Lemaire stepping away from the Devils’ bench this time. There was no hour-long show to announce his decision, no three-month wait while ESPN reporters camp out on his lawn (well for hockey, maybe it would be CBC) and no waffling. Before the game he announced his decision in the locker room to retire after today’s contest and the Devils sent him out as he deserved to be sent out – as a winner. While their 3-2 win over Boston this afternoon meant nothing in the standings, it was meaningful to a coach who’s all class and got a team who’d lost all pride to play with passion, even with no tangible reward for it other than the respect of its fans.
On Fan Appreciation Day, the Devils put on a good show with some unexpected goalscoring. After Patrik Elias got the team’s first early on in the game, Boston later tied it just after a power play and the game stayed at 1-1 until the third period when of all people Vladimir Zharkov got a breakaway and put the puck past Tukka Rask to give the Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. For Zharkov, it was just his second goal in 78 NHL games between last year and this year. Rookie defenseman Alexander Urbom added another later in the period – his first NHL goal. Urbom rejoined the team just this afternoon, after playing seven games very early in the season but spending most of the year in Albany.
Perhaps fittingly in a bizarre end to a bizarre season, as the Devil fans stood and cheered the end of the game, the lower bowl became packed with visiting Nordiques fans, who were concentrated in the balcony much of the day but were allowed to crowd the steps of the lower bowl as the final buzzer approached. And just as the crowd – Devils and Nords fans alike – was ready to explode, Boston scored with less than four seconds left, delaying the inevitable for a minute or so before finally the Devils sealed their win. Though I didn’t notice this at the time, Lemaire gave hint of his intentions by shaking the officials’ hands after the game.
While I wouldn’t have minded a return by the 66-year old Lemaire, I’m happy that he now gets to enjoy life with his family. Something he was doing before an old friend (Devils GM Lou Lamoriello) asked him for a favor in late December, to see what he could do with a team that was 9-22-2. He didn’t have to come back, but he did – showing the regard he has not only for Lou but for the organization as a whole. Ultimately the Devils’ run for .500 came up one game short, but it’s remarkable that a team which was nineteen under at one point wound up just a single game under by year’s end. Having done all of us proud, he gets to exit in a much better fashion than after last year’s drab second half and playoff exit, with a fanbase’s restored respect and admiration.
Lemaire’s legacy with the Devils is that he gave this franchise credibility and respect twice – the first time in 1994 when they had never really had either to begin with, apart from one Cinderella playoff run in 1988. The second time came this year, when a team who had won for years suddenly became a laughingstock who lost its way, on its way to a historically bad season for a non-expansion team. Once again, Lemaire brought respectability back to the Devils with a 29-17-3 record (which included a league-best 28-10-3 in the second half of the season) and players who had lost their confidence regained their form. His return and experience also proved invaluable to the ten rookies that suited up for at least one game this season. Even if Lemaire will be gone next year, his impact will still be felt.
Upon leaving, he said his only regret on coming back was not making the playoffs. Among anyone associated with the team this year, he’s perhaps the only one who’s blameless in that. My only regret on him leaving is that I don’t get to hear his entertaining press conferences anymore. Usually personable, sometimes funny but always knowledgeable. Perhaps that describes the man as well as his press conferences, along with a word I used in the first paragraph – class.
Thank you once again, Jacques. Enjoy your retirement now.
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