Of all the mad schemes dreamed up by professional athletes to wangle more money out of management, the one concocted by Jacques Lemaire deserved the trophy for originality. That at least was the consensus last spring when the classy forward for the Montreal Canadiens announced that he was going to defect to Switzerland to serve as player, coach and general manager for a team of young amateurs in some Alpine outpost called Sierre.
The disbelief and wisecracks about Lemaire going one-on-one with a mountain goat were understandable. After all, if not to gain bargaining power in his contract negotiations, why else would the leading scorer in the 1979 Stanley Cup playoffs and the center for the redoubtable Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt even consider "giving up all that glory and six-figure gilt to nursemaid a bunch of callow yodelers almost half a world away?
The Canadiens' Mario Trembley, a close friend, was so skeptical that he offered to bet assistant trainer Pierre Meilleur $100 that come fall Lemaire would again be wearing the old rouge, blanc et bleu. Meilleur was game, especially after checking the odds with Lemaire. "Double the bet to $200," Jacques told him, "and we'll split the take."
Last month, $100 and 1,000 new experiences richer, Lemaire was on the road with his Sierre team in Switzerland, headed for his first adventure in high-altitude hockey. Billed as a match amical—an exhibition game—it seemed more like a crash course in mountaineering. Turning off the main road, the team bus wound past the signs warning of falling crocks and deer crossings and ground up six steep miles of hairpin turns to the winter resort village of Villars. "Well," said Lemaire, surveying the rink perched on I the side of a mountain, "it's not the Montreal Forum, but it'll do."
According to Jean-Pierre Evittin, the cheery president of the host team, the Villars patinoire is in fact something of a monument. "It is the first ice hockey rink in all of Switzerland to have a roof," Evittin said proudly. "At present there are three rinks in the league that are, how do you say, topless. And yes, when it snows they have to stop the game every five minutes or so to clear off the ice, but it is good exercise, no?"
What about walls, he was asked, the kind that would protect the fans from the chill wind that was blowing through the open-sided structure? "Ah, most of our rinks are exposed to nature," Evittin said. "In the winter the temperature sometimes drops to 5 below, but you must understand that the fresh mountain air and the beautiful snow are what winter sports in Switzerland are all about."
Apparently, however, a fair share of the 250 spectators were gathered in an enclosed restaurant overlooking the rink, huddling over steaming pots of fondue and sipping coffee laced with apple brandy. "Isn't this incredible," said Don Shaw, a young Canadian who was hitchhiking through Europe. "When I heard that Jacques Lemaire was playing hockey in the mountains, I couldn't believe it. Forget the Matterhorn. This is one sight I just had to see. Look, it's so freezing you can see your breath."
Indeed, once the action began, the Sierre squad seemed about as stone cold as the north face of Mont Blanc. Lemaire, pushing his young charges into position and directing traffic with his stick, repeatedly tried to get something started, only to see his wingmen muff Jacques' quick, threadneedle passes. At one point in the first period, trailing 1-0 and scrambling, one Sierre player blindsided Lemaire and knocked him on his derri�re.
"This is depressing," Lemaire sternly lectured his players at the break. "Don't you want to win?" The visiteurs came back strongly in the second period to go ahead 2-1. Then, after Villars scored a tying goal early in the final period, it was time for Lemaire to put on a one-man show. In dazzling succession, dancing by defenders and snapping off rapid-fire shots from seemingly impossible angles—zing! zip! zap!—he scored a hat trick to lead Sierre to a 6-3 victory.
Afterward, Lemaire charitably attributed the miscues of the first period to "poor visibility." He was referring to yet another remarkable aspect of the Villars aerie, the passing cloud banks that periodically engulfed the rink. Eerie as it was, the otherworldly effect was apt, for if the new scourge of Sierre could send one message back to his friends and fans in Montreal, it would be this: Jacques Lemaire has found a little piece of heaven in the Alps.