"I know a lot of people thought I was crazy coming over here," Lemaire said on the ride back to Sierre. "But after 12 years in the NHL, after winning eight Stanley Cups and putting a lot of pressure on myself, I was ready to quit. I just turned 34, and though I played my best hockey the past two seasons, it was getting hard on my system. I was tired of being tense most of the year."
Drawing on a stogie, he went on, "I always wanted to do something reckless, have an adventure, see how other people live, discover something new. Well, that time is now. I've always been interested in coaching, and when this opportunity presented itself, it seemed like the perfect thing."
Raised in the Montreal suburb of Ville LaSalle, Lemaire spent the better part of his youth slapping a steel puck against a driveway wall. The drill served him well when he joined the Canadiens in 1967 and established himself as one of the hardest shooters in the league. Though a consistently high scorer, especially in the playoffs, he was the kind of unassuming, all-round player who invariably wins the most-underrated honors.
A whippet among mastiffs, Lemaire has no taste for the NHL's roughhouse style of play, preferring finesse to fisticuffs, and it was this scientific approach that led him to an appreciation of the European game. "If the money's there," he said when first approached by a Swiss hockey promoter, "I'm ready."
The cash was there all right, gift-wrapped. In turning down the Canadiens' offer of $225,000 a year, Lemaire opted for a tax-free $75,000 annually plus a house, a car, a maid and a big intangible. Though he signed for three years, Lemaire says, "I can do what I want with my contract—quit, renegotiate, move to another team. That's called freedom."
Known as the most astute hockey mind on the Canadiens, if not in the NHL, Lemaire has nonetheless had to adjust to the Swiss system. Sierre plays in the national B league, which Lemaire equates with Canadian junior hockey. Each team is allowed to suit up one foreign professional, who becomes, in effect, a designated native after five seasons, thereby making way for another import to join the club. Though the Swiss players are all nominally amateurs, the level of play can be high. "If not for the roughness," says Lemaire, " Bern, the champions of the A league, could beat any of the six lowest teams in the NHL."
Since fighting results in an immediate suspension, the emphasis is on technique, which suits Lemaire just fine. He says, "They have training methods here that produce much better skaters. Let's face it, the NHL puts on a great show, but the Europeans play superior hockey. The Russians proved that when they clobbered the NHL All-Stars last winter. By adding some drills of my own, I hope to build a team combining the aggressiveness of the Canadians with the puck control and passing of the Russians."
The Sierre players do not always find it easy to comply with Lemaire's first commandment of hockey: "Play with spirit, have fun." They range in age from 16 to 33 and include such stars as Jaroslav Krupicka, a Czech professional who once played for the Los Angeles Sharks in the World Hockey Association. Trouble is, the Swiss players—students, shop clerks, factory workers—have already put in a full day's work when they appear for the evening practice sessions and have only so much left to give.
Lemaire works them hard, but worries, "I just don't know how far I can push them before they tell me to go to hell. I know none of the Canadiens would work that hard, so how much can I ask? It's easy to be tough, but how tough?"
Otherwise, for Jacques, his wife, Mychele, and their three children, Patrice, 10, Danyk, 7, and Magalie, 3, the living is easy in Sierre, a sun-kissed town of 8,600 amiable souls located midway in the Rhone Valley. The Lemaires live a few miles outside of town in Granges, a tiny village with a school, a church and three castles. Their home, a new five-bedroom chalet, is surrounded by apple orchards and the sweet scent of mountain flowers.