Lemaire gets long deserved nod from Team Canada
Canada chose Jacques Lemaire as assistant despite no international experience
Veteran NHL coach Lemaire is prized for his teaching and special teams prowess
The choice of Mike Babcock as coach was wise; he'll value Lemaire's input
MONTREAL -- Jacques Lemaire, freshly named as an assistant coach for Canada's 2010 Olympic team after a coaching lifetime with his nose pressed to the window of Hockey Canada's old boy's club, peered into the television camera and said in French, "At last they understood" before cackling loudly at his own joke.
If the formal announcement of Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock as Canada's head man for the home Games in Vancouver was as predictable as it was proper -- the dynamic Babcock earned the job with his successes in the NHL and internationally -- the decision to add Lemaire, late of the Minnesota Wild, to join Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Columbus' Ken Hitchcock as assistants was positively inspired.
For the first time in memory, Hockey Canada stepped outside its comfort zone and picked a coach with no previous ties to the organizing body. Lemaire has never apprenticed as world championships head coach, like the passionate Ruff did this spring. He never has been a water-carrier for Canada's international play like Hitchcock, an x-and-o's wonk who was part of gold-medal-winning staffs in Olympics and World Cups.
Lemaire never went through a successful world juniors campaign like Babcock did in 1997, seven years before coaching Canada to the gold at the 2004 men's worlds. The 63-year-old Lemaire was not hired for his loyalty to the Hockey Canada organization, the gold standard, but because he is, among the current generation of coaches, the greatest fount of hockey wisdom.
As former NHL defenseman Lyle Odelein once said of Lemaire, "I learned more in 10 minutes with him than I did from all my other coaches combined."
Two questions: Why now? And what took Hockey Canada so long?
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and Babcock don't carry as much baggage as some of the men who had been involved in the Hockey Canada decision-making process. They brought fresh eyes, and through that lens they saw a coach unrivaled at breaking down a game. Doug Armstrong, the St. Louis Blues' assistant general manager who is serving as one of Yzerman's aides, noted that they took a long look at the Wild's special teams -- especially penalty killing -- under Lemaire.
Said Armstrong, "Year after year they've always been among the best in the league."
If you remember the balky Red Wings penalty killing throughout the 2008-09 season, and especially during the playoffs, you can understand why Babcock would embrace the idea of a coach with a Ph.D in positional hockey.
Well, why not before?
Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson mentioned that Lemaire always seemed to be tied up, which has a grain of truth of to it. But the crux of the issue is that many players -- especially stars who typically comprise most international teams -- don't like playing for Lemaire. (He was not exactly a free-agent magnet in Minnesota.) He is an exacting coach, one intolerant of players' egos. He also prefers a style that, to borrow an analogy from basketball, can be described as half-court hockey.
For a two-week event, Lemair would probably have been a bad fit as a head coach. Pat Quinn, recently hired by the Edmonton Oilers, clearly had a grand rapport with teams that were thrown together for tournaments, smartly delegating much of the technical stuff to Hitchcock. (Quinn went two-for-three, winning in Salt Lake City in 2002 and the 2004 World Cup while failing miserably in the 2006 Olympics.) As an assistant coach, however, Lemaire would have been invaluable at any time.
Given Babcock's preference for puck pressure -- he called it "a 200-foot game" on Thursday -- and Lemaire's trademark trap-and-counterpunch style, theoretically their presence on the same staff could lead to some chalkboard wars. But as Armstrong noted, Babcock, like head coaches anywhere, will listen to input and make the final call.
"Diversity is an asset on a coaching staff," Buffalo GM Darcy Regier said. "You want as much diversity as you can get. And when you can get someone with the intelligence and knowledge of a coach like Lemaire, it's a great thing to tap into. I only saw him play on TV" -- Lemaire won eight Stanley Cups in a 12-year Hall of Fame career with Montreal that ended in 1979 -- "but you look at all those Cups, you figure he knows how to be a team player."
And Babcock, 46, is not shy about turning to others for advice and opinions. Scotty Bowman, the former coach and Detroit executive who is now an advisor with the Chicago Blackhawks, remains a regular resource. Babcock also canvasses other hockey men whose opinions he regards. An innate understanding that he didn't invent the game is just one more reason that Babcock, who has won one Cup and coached two Game Sevens in the final, is an ideal choice.
A form of hockey nepotism has undermined some of Canada's past Olympic efforts. In 1998, Team Canada GM Bob Clarke anointed his Philadelphia Flyers star, Eric Lindros, as the captain -- some wishful and misguided thinking on a team that had Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, Raymond Bourque, Scott Stevens, Joe Sakic, Al MacInnis and others far better suited to the responsibility than Lindros.
At those same Games, Marc Crawford, then coaching Colorado, guaranteed his goaltender, Patrick Roy, would make every start. After Canada's heartbreaking shootout loss to the Czech Republic in the brilliant semifinal, Crawford's commitment to his own NHL goalie, instead of a switch to the eager Martin Brodeur, likely cost Canada a bronze medal.
In 2002, Quinn started Curtis Joseph in the opening loss to Sweden but switched to Brodeur, a decision that caused a rift when Quinn and Joseph reconvened with the Toronto Maple Leafs after the Olympics.
There was no nest-feathering here. Yzerman, a Red Wings vice-president who played his final NHL season under Babcock, used his first-hand look to select the best head coach. And after a score of years when Lemaire was ready for the role, Hockey Canada walked up the mountain and found its guru.
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