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Wednesday, January 8, 2003
Lemaire's success measured in steps

By Tom Jones
Special to ESPN.com

The story goes that Jacques Lemaire wouldn't agree to coach the Minnesota Wild until general manager Doug Risebrough mailed him a Wild sweater.

Jacques Lemaire
Jacques Lemaire turned around the Canadiens and won a Cup with his Devils, but his biggest achievement has been with the Wild.
It wasn't enough that Risebrough broiled on a fishing boat off Florida's Gulf Coast for a weekend, his face roasting to a crispy red, trying to lure his former Canadiens teammate out of retirement. It wasn't enough that Risebrough was offering to make Lemaire one of the highest-paid coaches in NHL history.

Lemaire wanted to see the Wild emblem stitched on the sweater as if it were some kind of crystal ball, lending him a peek at the future.

In the end, it probably wouldn't have mattered if the Wild uniforms were uglier than the canary-yellow jerseys that the old Vancouver Canucks used to wear. If Lemaire is behind the bench, the team likely will have success.

"The best coach in the league, by far," former Wild defenseman Sean O'Donnell once said. "I learned more in the first two weeks playing for him than all my other coaches combined. The guy knows so much about hockey, it's scary."

Now that Scotty Bowman, Lemaire's former coach, is retired, the argument could be made that Lemaire is the NHL's top coach. And it isn't his resurrection of the Canadiens in the early 1980's, or his coach-of-the-year award with New Jersey in 1994, or even his Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995 that earns him such high praise.

It's what he has done with the Wild, a little expansion team turned into the little-engine-that-could. In just its third-season, the Wild are on pace for a 100-point season and its first-ever postseason appearance.

And with a roster full of castoffs and journeyman, has-beens and never-wases (plus emerging star Marian Gaborik), who else but Lemaire deserves the credit?

"Jacques is the best there is," Wild center Wes Walz said. "He's a guy who will explain your role to you, teach you that role, and then put you in situations were you can be successful in that role.

"If you're a goal scorer, he can help you. If you're a defensive player, he will help you get better. He knows every facet of the game, and he can teach it. I once was a player who couldn't check his coat, and now I'm known as a checker."

Walz is a perfect example of Lemaire's mastery. Once considered a strictly offensive player, Walz was toiling in Switzerland before getting a shot with Lemaire and the Wild. Now he's considered one of the league's better defensive forwards.

He knows every facet of the game, and he can teach it. I once was a player who couldn't check his coat, and now I'm known as a checker.
Wes Walz, Wild center
The Wild are full of stories such as that. Richard Park was a career minor-leaguer, and now has an outside shot at 20 goals. Sergei Zholtok went from an enigmatic offensive player in Montreal and Edmonton to dependable defensive player who has regained his scoring touch. Jim Dowd, Antti Laaksonen, Brad Bombardir -- just to name a few -- were fringe NHL players who have become part of the core of one of the NHL's hottest teams.

The reason? Perhaps it's because Lemaire doesn't have the Ted Williams Syndrome -- the affliction where great players cannot be a great coaches because of high demands or expectations. Lemaire was a Hall of Fame player on perhaps the greatest dynasty in NHL history, yet he's realistic enough to know that not all players have superstar skills.

"I just want you to do what you're supposed to do," Lemaire said. "If you're a goal scorer, then that's what you should do. If you're a defensive player, then do that. If you're a physical player, then be physical. But I don't expect a checker to score 30 goals, because he's not capable of that. Do what you're here to do."

Before joining the Wild, Lemaire's claim-to-fame (or should we say claim-to-blame) was perfecting the dreaded neutral-zone trap. His reputation, though, is improving because of the way he handles young players. That, perhaps, is now Lemaire's forte.

Under Lemaire's steady hand, Gaborik has emerged into an elite player, and young players such as Pascal Dupuis, Nick Schultz, Filip Kuba and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, just 18 years old, are becoming dependable NHL regulars.

Away from the stress and pressure of Montreal and New Jersey, Lemaire finally has the job he has always wanted in Minnesota. For him, success isn't measured by division titles or Stanley Cups. It's calculated in small steps: the growth of a young player, the resurrection of an older player, cultivating a team from new to respectable to downright good.

Lemaire has done that with the Wild, whose emblem looks like that of a winner with Lemaire behind the bench.

Tom Jones covers the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.