ST. PAUL, Minn. — By all accounts, the Minnesota Wild would have been far less successful with someone other than Jacques Lemaire behind the bench.
After supervising every game since their birth as an expansion franchise nine years ago, Lemaire believes the Wild are better off without him. His players, with full respect, didn’t argue.
“They will need this. The team needs this,” Lemaire said at his farewell news conference to discuss his decision to leave.
As Lemaire retreats to his summer home in Florida and figures out where he wants to go next in the game, Wild president and general manager Doug Risebrough will seek a coach for the next chapter in the franchise’s development.
Risebrough plans to take his time, too; he said Monday the process might take up to three months.
Such longevity is rare in today’s NHL.
Only Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff (12 years) and Nashville’s Barry Trotz (11 years) have tenures with their teams slightly exceeding Lemaire’s. Since he was hired, according to STATS LLC, there have been exactly 100 coaching changes around the league.
With his distinctly defence-oriented style and demand for discipline and proper positioning on the ice, there aren’t many coaches in the history of the NHL who’ve had more impact on a team’s identity.
“When you say, ’Minnesota Wild,’ everybody imagines him,” said right wing Marian Gaborik, the franchise’s first draft pick.
Maximizing his team’s abilities is the bedrock of Lemaire’s coaching acumen.
He was NHL Coach of the Year in 2003 after taking the Wild to the Western Conference finals in their third season with a 21-year-old Gaborik the only player close to star status.
Lemaire takes pride in thorough preparation, and he has a firm grasp of the little details of the game.
“His knowledge of the game is immense,” defenceman Brent Burns said. “It’s on a different level to most people.”
Lemaire, 63, also has a keen sense of what makes his teams and players tick. That’s the same type of awareness he used to decide a month ago this would be his final season with the Wild.
Assistant coach Mike Ramsey remarked Monday about Lemaire’s skill for speaking to the team between periods.
“He always comes up with something that will touch you or motivates you or makes you think,” Ramsey said, adding: “In nine years I never left that room going, ’Oh, that’s not what you would’ve said,’ or, ’Oh, that wasn’t good.”’
Lemaire’s eyes were glassy, and he pressed his lips together and fidgeted with paper in front of him at a podium while Risebrough raved about his performance.
Lemaire mentioned how much he’ll miss the fans and how attached his wife, Mychele, had become to living in Minnesota, with homes also in Florida and his native Quebec.
He also talked about the joy of seeing the look of understanding and accomplishment in the eyes of his players once his orders got through to them.
Burns, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Colton Gillies and Nick Schultz were among the players who showed up for Lemaire’s news conference.
“He wanted to make us perfect,” centre Mikko Koivu said, “and I think that’s a big part of his coaching.”
The message, though, was wearing thin.
Lemaire chalked up conflict to typical coach-player interaction, but there was tension throughout his last two seasons. Players complained about not getting enough days off, and some of them felt stifled by his trapping, stay-at-home scheme.
“Sometimes change is good,” said centre James Sheppard. “I’ve been playing hockey since I was 3, so it’s not like I’m new to the game, but I’m new to the way that Jacques did things.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other. It was just that sometimes I maybe didn’t understand, or he didn’t understand where I was coming from. When we talked and figured things out and got on the same page, we were fine and it worked well.”