Unlike a year ago when he could barely get the words out, New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire had little trouble announcing his retirement this time.
There was a smile on the face of the 65-year-old Hall of Famer on Sunday as he said he was leaving the coaching ranks for the third and probably the final time.
”I’m going back where I was before,” Lemaire said after going out a winner following a 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins. ”It demands a lot and I want to enjoy life. I want to enjoy the family.”
Lemaire made his decision about two days ago and told his team about it before the game. He added his love of the game hasn’t diminished, but it is time for him to leave.
Remarkably, this four-month span might have been one of Lemaire’s best as a coach. He replaced rookie coach John MacLean on Dec. 23 with the team in the basement of the Eastern Conference and nearly produced a miracle comeback, getting New Jersey within six points of a playoff spot before fading late.
”He did a great job,” Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk said. ”We’ll see. Maybe he changes his mind and comes back next year. It’s bad. I think he brought the team back and he did a lot of good things for the organization.”
Lemaire admitted he had doubts returning in December, but ended up having a great time.
”I still do think that I made the right decision last year, but I am really happy I took the job for the rest of the season,” said Lemaire, who shook hands with referees Stephane Auger and Chris Rooney and linesmen Steve Barton and Tony Sericola before heading to the locker room after the game.
His only regret was that the Devils could not finish the job and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996. However, Lemaire believes New Jersey will be back in the playoffs next season.
”I think we expected it,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. ”Last year was unexpected. We’re back to square one. I think the boys really learned a lot the last part of the season under Jacques. We’ve got to be thankful that he came in and salvaged a little bit of the season.”
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will have to find a new coach, and Lemaire said he would offer advice, if asked.
”It’s been a great thrill to get a chance to play for him,” backup goalie Johan Hedberg said. ”He’s very, very skilled at what he does. I learned a lot.”
After a slow start under Lemaire, the Devils staged a magnificent second-half run. Twenty-seven points out of a playoff spot in early January, they went 23-3-2 to draw within six points a couple of weeks ago.
The rally fell short and Lemaire finished with a 29-17-3 mark this season.
Lemaire coached the Devils from 1993-98, leading the team to its first Stanley Cup title in 1995. He was hired as the first coach of the expansion Minnesota Wild in June 2000 and coached them through the 2008-09 season. He returned to the Devils for the 2009-10 season.
A member of eight Stanley Cup championship teams as a player and two more in the front office with Montreal, Lemaire coached the Canadiens from February 1984 through the end of the 1984-85 season. He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach in 1994 with New Jersey and 2003 with Minnesota.