He's in a full Leonard Bernstein mode—his arms waving, head shaking and hockey stick pointing. It's such a frenetic display that Jacques Lemaire, named head coach of the Canadiens only two weeks ago, looks as though he hasn't yet decided whether he's conducting a Mahler symphony or the Montreal power play. Lemaire points to the area where he wants defenseman Larry Robinson. He waves Guy Lafleur to a spot halfway down the left wing boards. Then he uses his stick to indicate the various options—the shots, the give and go, or the passes to the slot, corner or point.
This was last Wednesday, a day most Montrealers spent digging out of a snowstorm that dumped ten inches on their city. But Lemaire and his team were at Sylvio Mantha Arena to try to dig out of something much deeper—the pit of dispirited and inconsistent play that had threatened to see the once lordly Club de Hockey Canadien stumble to its first losing season in 33 years. Five days earlier, on Friday, Feb. 24, the Canadiens had a 28-30-5 record, and general manager Serge Savard had fired head coach Bob Berry and replaced him with assistant Lemaire.
Lemaire, 38, a veteran of 12 seasons and eight Stanley Cup championships during the Montreal glory years of the late 1960s and '70s, was hired last May by Savard, who had been a standout defenseman on those same eight Stanley Cup teams. At the same time, Savard reinstated Berry as head coach. A month earlier, Berry had been demoted by team president Ronald Corey after Montreal lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. There are those around the NHL who think Berry was dead meat from Day One.
"They had Lemaire like this," said Detroit coach Nick Polano, stepping sideways into a doorway to make his point, "just waiting in the wings until he got the chance."
Savard and Lemaire claim it was nothing more than the team's poor record and poorer morale that was Berry's undoing. A vivid example of the latter occurred the day Berry was fired when, at a two-hour blowout practice, several Canadiens smashed their sticks on the ice and boards in frustration, and one, Mario Tremblay, stormed off the ice after pointing his finger in Berry's face.
Berry also got sideways with aging superstar Lafleur—the living symbol of what was once French-Canadian hockey dominance—and, therefore, with a majority of Montreal fans and the critical French-language press. Berry benched the 32-year-old Lafleur for most of the third period of an Oct. 25 loss to Minnesota at the Forum. "GUY...GUY...GUY..." came the chant from the stands until Berry put Lafleur on the ice late in the period. When Lafleur hit the post on a good scoring bid, he got a standing ovation. Berry got booed.
Berry also exhibited a reluctance to play rookies, especially late in close games, thus undermining—to Savard's annoyance—the confidence of such players as center Alfie Turcotte, the team's No. 1 draft pick, and defenseman Kent Carlson. "I hurt for them, they were so down," says Lemaire of the team he inherited.
The new coach—whose rather modest portfolio consisted of two years as player-coach of a pro team in Switzerland, a year as an assistant at Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State ( NCAA Division II) and 1982-83 as head coach of a Junior A team in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil—set about repairing that hurt by telling the team of his intention to use every player and his willingness to play rookies on a regular basis. Five minutes into his first game—a 7-4 win over the New York Rangers the day after he took over—Lemaire had reinforced his point by using every player except backup goalie Richard S�vigny.
"Win or lose, a professional athlete has to feel that he was involved in the outcome of the game," says Montreal captain Bob Gainey. "Right now, everyone feels that way."
Lemaire also says he'll be slow to nail a player to the bench. "We had guys like [defenseman Bill] Root who was afraid of making a mistake because it might put him on the bench," says Lemaire. "But any player who's afraid of making a mistake isn't going to want the puck. And not wanting the puck is the biggest mistake of all."