Remembering Jacques Lemaire, hockey player

Jacques Lemaire plies his trade against the St. Louis Blues during a rather unusual line change. The state of Lemaire's receding hairline, the lack of the helmet which he donned in mid-career, and especially the fact the Blues goalie is almost certainly Ernie Wakely, places this photograph around 1970-72.

Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement this week, 26 years and 16 coaching seasons removed from his coaching debut. It occurs to me that most in the reading audience will know Lemaire as a coach, but relatively few will remember him as a player. Fewer still are of the advanced vintage that can remember him breaking in!  

The year was 1967. Canada was celebrating its Centennial, and hockey was changing. The NHL was expanding from 6 teams to 12. The Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup that spring in a mild upset over the Montreal Canadiens, but were a spent force, never to win again. The Habs, meanwhile, were reloading. They had lost some 20 bodies from their organization to expansion, but had plenty of young talent to fill the holes. They also still had their canny old coach, Toe Blake, in his 13th and last season behind the Habs’ bench.

Among the youngsters was Jacques Lemaire, a dynamic young centre. Lemaire had starred with the Montreal Junior Canadiens for three years, then spent his first professional season with Houston Apollos in the old CPHL before returning to Montreal where he would spend the entirety of his 12-year NHL (playing) career.  

I was a Habs hater in those days, and easily took a dislike of Lemaire and his obvious talent. Reason had nothing to do with it, although he did provide plenty of "reasons", most of which had to do with him popping big goals or making key plays to thwart my club du jour, defined as whoever was playing the Habs that night. 

Lemaire’s calling card at first was his powerful slapshot. Let’s let his legendary captain, Jean Beliveau, take up the story:

"In the 1968 season, the team was playing in Boston. Since I had suffered a minor knee problem in New York the night before, I was sitting this game out in the press box. At intermission, however, one of the trainers waved at me from the bench. I went downstairs, and Larry Aubut said, "Toe just got kicked out of the game. You’re coaching." [Note: No assistants in those days!]

"We were down 1-0 at that point, and the Bruins added another early in the second, before they took a penalty. I’d always wondered why Toe never put Jacques Lemaire on the point. The rookie had the best slapshot on the team – hard, heavy, and accurate. "Here’s my chance to try out my theory," I thought. I sent him out on the point – and he promptly scored. For the rest of the game Jacques was on the point for every power play. We finally won 5-2 or 5-3." 

--Jean Beliveau, My Life in Hockey

The essential Hockey Summary Project verifies most of the major details of this story, although Le Gros Bill modestly understated the final score, which was 6-2 Habs. It would be Beliveau’s only game behind the bench; at his retirement announcement three years later he stated "There are two jobs I don’t want in hockey: coach and general manager." But in his one game he beat Bobby Orr’s team, making a key strategic move while providing an odd link between two of the very few men who made the Hall of Fame as players but later became even more famous as coaches.

(My guess is that the crafty old coach, Blake, had likely thought of using Lemaire on the point but didn’t want to expose a rookie in a position where he might fail.)

Blake gradually worked the rookie into the line-up, and he finished his first season 8th in club scoring with 22-20-42 while crafting an impressive +15.  Lemaire emerged as a major force in the playoffs, playing a key role as Montreal stormed to the Cup, losing just one game over three series. Jacques scored a pair of goals in his second playoff game, a win over Boston. In the Eastern Conference Final - whose winner was all but assured of taking the Cup - he scored the series-winning goal in overtime to eliminate the Blackhawks. He followed up by scoring another overtime winner in the very next game, which of course was his first career Stanley Cup Finals game, in St. Louis against Scotty Bowman’s Blues. Lemaire wound up second on the Habs with 13 playoff points, just one behind linemate Yvan Cournoyer; and tied the great Beliveau for the team lead with 7 goals. The rookie was a leading Conn Smythe candidate, although ultimately the PHWA went another way and gave the award to losing finalist and respected veteran Glenn Hall.

Jacques Lemaire drinks from the Stanley Cup in 1968.

After winning the first Cup of the expansion era, Blake retired. Lemaire would win a second Cup under Claude Ruel and a third under Al MacNeil before Scotty Bowman took over the squad in 1971. The pair would enjoy 8 productive seasons together, and it would seem Jacques learned a thing or two hundred along the way.

Lemaire didn’t come with a built-in reputation as a great defensive stalwart, but it quickly became clear he was a very cerebral player with an uncanny knack of being in a good spot to thwart an attack. Paired mostly with Cournoyer on his right wing, the duo had an assortment of portsiders over the years including the great veterans Dick Duff and Frank Mahovlich, the young Marc Tardif and the younger Murray Wilson.

The frequent combination of Lemaire between F.Mahovlich and Cournoyer was Montreal’s first line in the early 70s, with each of the three playing a huge role in the Cup wins of 1971 and ’73. In ’71 Lemaire scored a memorable goal that turned around Game 7 of the SCF in Chicago Stadium, beating Tony Esposito with a booming slapshot from outside the blueline to cut a 2-0 Hawks lead in half and instantly put the fear of the devil in a Chicago Stadium crowd that had been loud and boisterous until that moment. Minutes later Lemaire set up Henri Richard for the tying goal, and the Habs went on to steal the game and the Cup, 3-2. Lemaire posted a solid 19 points in the postseason, but this time the media saw fit to vote for a rookie, in fact a pre-rookie, Habs teammate Ken Dryden.

In 1972-73 Bowman’s Habs hit their first peak, setting an NHL record with just 10 losses in a 78-game schedule. Lemaire led that squad in scoring with 44 goals and 95 points (4th and 5th in the league respectively), and led all NHL forwards with a +59 rating, yet was left off the end-of-season All-Star Team as voters preferred his more fearsome contemporaries Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke at pivot. Lemaire posted another 20 points in the playoffs, but lost out in Smythe voting to his linemate Cournoyer. So it always seemed to go for #25. Win the Cup, escape the limelight.

Gradually Montreal’s veteran leadership core – Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Jacques Laperriere, J.C. Tremblay, Frank Mahovlich – retired or moved on to the WHA, passing the torch to the able hands of Lemaire, Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Pete Mahovlich. Meanwhile a new generation of prodigious talent was bubbling underneath: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Mario Tremblay, Doug Risebrough, Doug Jarvis, and on and on. By 1975 an awesome powerhouse was emerging.

I still hated the Habs, but the New Year’s Eve game against Central Red Army would show them in a different light. For one night they were perforce the good guys; I saw a whole lot of the bleu, blanc et rouge Real good that night, Jacques Lemaire foremost among them. From then on I found myself admiring and respecting Lemaire as a tremendous competitor and a master of the two-way art. (Alas, I never did get to see him play a live game as his early retirement took him out of the NHL just as my Oilers were getting in.)

As he proved that New Year's Eve, Lemaire's game would have been ideal on the international stage. Even as he was a private man who largely shunned the limelight, he was a proud competitor who was hurt by being overlooked for the great Team Canada squads of 1972 and 1976. Canada was always knee-deep in fine centres, but Lemaire's omission from the Summit Series and the first Canada Cup was a puzzle.

Lemaire was a "glue" player, ready able and willing to play whatever role was needed to help the team win. He described his own game this way in a 1981 interview with Michael Farber (hat tip Jonathan Willis at Hockey or Die):

"I was appreciated… by people who liked my style.  And I was hated by other people.  A group of persons go to the games to see Lafleur and Gretzky.  There’s another group that go to see Nilan fight.  And there are other people who go to study the game, to see who’s doing his job and who isn’t.  I like to think those people appreciated me…

"I liked being second or third violin.  As long as the team was doing great, that was my main purpose.  I was happy.  Satisfied."

That team did better than great. They posted regular season records of 59-10-11; 60-8-12, and 58-11-11 over the next three seasons, scoring more than 2 goals for every 1 they allowed over that span. In the playoffs they lost just 1, 2, and 3 games en route to the Cup.Lafleur emerged as a dominant scorer, with Shutt a constant on his port side. P.Mahovlich and Lemaire took turns as their centre as Bowman constantly tinkered with match-ups. Mahovlich was ultimately traded in the fall of 1977 and Lemaire moved up to the top line on a full-time basis.

Lemaire’s two-way game fit in nicely on any line and invariably complemented his linemates. With Lafleur and Shutt he was effectively the middleman in a 2-1-2, keying the transition game in the manner of cerebral Russian centres like Vladimir Petrov or later, Igor Larionov.

Through it all he continued to deliver offence in the crunch. He scored key goals in the first two games of the sweep of the Flyers in the '76 SCF, including the late tying goal in Game 1, then an unassisted shortie which broke a scoreless tie deep into Game 2, both one-goal Montreal victories. In the 1977 Finals he notched the game winner in three of the four games against the Bruins, scoring both goals including the overtime winner in Montreal's 2-1 victory in Boston that clinched the Cup. He finished the playoffs with 19 points in 14 games but linemate Lafleur won the Conn Smythe that time.

In 1977-78 Lemaire achieved a career high with 97 points, finishing fourth in league scoring. Alas, besides Lafleur, the other two players who finished ahead of him were centres Bryan Trottier and Darryl Sittler, and yet again Lemaire was left on the sidelines when the post-season All-Star Team was announced. He had to console himself with another new Stanley Cup ring.

By the 1978-79 season the Montreal dynasty started to show its first signs of wear. The squad fell to a record of "just" 52-17-11, and lost first overall by one point to the rising power that was the New York Islanders. Lemaire missed 30 games to injury, but still mustered over 50 points, and over 200 shots on goal, for the 11th consecutive season. He had plenty left for the post-season, which was arguably the best of his great career. Lemaire scored 2 or more points in 6 of Montreal's last 7 victories in those playoffs. Among those was a key assist on the biggest goal of the playoffs, teeing up Lafleur's powerplay marker that tied Game 7 of the semi-finals against Boston after the famous too-many-men penalty that essentially ended Don Cherry's reign in Beantown. Lemaire wrapped up the playoffs by scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Rangers, then scored the season's final goal to clinch a 4-1 Habs triumph. It was his 11th goal and 23rd point of the playoffs, enough to lead the NHL in both categories. Yet checker Bob Gainey was the voters' choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Lemaire was now 33 years old, and seemed to have lots in the tank. He had played 12 NHL seasons and finished an amazing 8 of them as a Stanley Cup champion. He had scored at least 20 goals every season, averaging ~70 GP, 30 goals, 70 points, and +30 over those dozen regular seasons, with much more in the playoffs. Astonishingly he had never received a major individual award from the NHL - no appearances on the All-Star Team, no Conn Smythe Trophy, not even a Lady Byng despite never taking as many as 30 PiM in a season.

And like that, poof, he was gone. Lemaire accepted a job in the Swiss B League as a player-coach, and set his single-minded focus on coaching. Ever the second violin, even his departure was overshadowed by those of Ken Dryden and Scotty Bowman. Deprived of three key contributors still in their prime, Les Glorieux remained a fine hockey team, but the dynasty was over.   

Lemaire took an unconventional route back to the NHL - Europe, US College, then major junior - but within five years was Montreal's head coach, leading them to a surprise Conference Final. After stepping down a year later, he was part of the management team as the Habs won the Cup in 1986 and 1993, but left the organization for good that summer (and they haven't won since). Lemaire went on to coaching success in New Jersey, winning the Stanley Cup in 1995, his eleventh such triumph in various capacities. He was (in)famous for his defensive tactics, particularly the widely-reviled Neutral Zone Trap, but managed to mould such players as Sergei Brylin, Brian Rolston, and even Bobby Carpenter into low-PiM checkers, opportunistic counterattackers, and ultimately into champions.

While playoff success would largely elude him after 1995, his teams in Jersey and Minnesota won four Jennings Trophies over the years for fewest goals against, just as his Habs teams had won six Vezina Trophies (also for fewest goals against back in the day) during his playing days. Jacques Lemaire had a great offensive mind for the game, but his calling card was defence. For the lion's share of the last 43 years, he always seemed to combine the two in an effective package that resulted in outscoring, and winning.

In 1984, just as he was beginning his second NHL career as a coach, a new group of voters made amends for a dozen years of omission when Jacques Lemaire was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was an honour he rightfully earned by virtue of being one of the finest hockey players of his generation. In years after, the PHWA finally nodded his way, twice voting him the Jack Adams Trophy for his coaching acumen. 

Thus Lemaire retires a venerated, no-longer-underrated elder of the sport. He also retires a winner on the international stage, having at long last been given his opportunity to represent Team Canada, as an associate coach in Vancouver 2010; with typically little fanfare he also-typically did his part to help his team win the big one. I for one wish Jacques a happy retirement because he's earned it after a lifetime of dedication to the game.

Jacques Lemaire holds no NHL records, save one: he is one of six players to score two Stanley Cup-winning goals. The others? Mike Bossy, Bobby Orr, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, and one Hector "Toe" Blake. 

Most Stanley Cups, player and/or coach

Player   Coach  Total
Toe Blake  3 8 11
Henri Richard  11 0 11
Jean Beliveau   10 0 10
Yvan Cournoyer  10 0 10
Claude Provost  9 0 9
Scotty Bowman  0 9 9
Jacques Lemaire  8 1 9

 

Most Stanley Cups as a player and coach (minimum 1 each)

Player  Coach  Total
Toe Blake  3 8 11
Jacques Lemaire  8 1 9
Larry Robinson  6 1 7
Tom Johnson  6 1 7
Al Arbour  3 4 7
Hap Day  1 5 6
Jack Adams  2 3 5

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