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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bon Voyage Jacques, and Please Stay Retired!

I'm still licking my wounds from the playoff  loss, so I'm taking comfort in just about anything I can take as a positive.  One of those things happened a few days ago when New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement from coaching.

While I'm ardently anti-Devils (I still curse John MacLean sometimes), that's only a tiny piece of why this move makes me happy.  We're talking about a man who shrouded the NHL in darkness for nearly a decade.  We're talking about a man who tried to ruin the sport of hockey.  A coach who made more of a mockery of the game than anybody.  Ever.  Well almost anybody as there's one other I'll mention later.  And I know I'm not alone.  The commish himself, Gary Bettman, has to be ecstatic about this as well.

For those of you who haven't followed the game for that long, let me give a little history lesson here.  Jacques Lemaire had been a middling coach for a few years in the mid- 80s, driven away by the French press after a mediocre two years in Montreal.  Oh yeah, while he was there he pretty much drove Guy Lafleur crazy...and into early retirement.  A decade later he resurfaced as the coach of the Devils and guided them to the Cup in 1995, the infamous lockout shortened season.

And what was his secret?  The dreaded neutral-zone trap.  In other words, boring defensive hockey. The kind that puts fans to sleep and drives people away.  And the league, which already had a black eye because of the lockout, suffered for it.  Hockey was turning into a joke--people were starting to call it soccer!  The Devils became synonymous with the type of clutch-and-grab, defense first hockey.  But it turned a lot of potential new fans off and bored diehard fans to tears.  It was so bad that Bettman spent the next 10 years figuring out how to get rid of it.

So he won one Cup.  Big deal.  Lots of coaches have won just the one Cup, it doesn't make them geniuses.  What I think is the funniest (and by funny I mean ironic) note in his career is that the Devils actually led the league in goals in his first year there.  You know he put a stop to that the very next year.  An offensive team coached by Lemaire? may as well have said that Tiger Woods slept with (?????).

It took another lockout for some drastic changes to be considered.  Changes that would make the game into the more exciting product it is today.  Like the legalization of the stretch pass and making the hooking-holding-clutching-grabbing style of defense made popular by guess who?  Right.  Jacques Lemaire and his clones, namely Ken Hitchcock.  Ever wonder why hockey was so made fun of in those years?  It was because it was boring and NO ONE was going to the games.  No wonder they had two labor disruptions in ten years, one of which killed a whole season.  You want to know why I'm glad to see Lemaire retired and Hitchcock fired?  That's why.

Lemaire made a mockery of the Captain's importance by using it as a month-to-month "reward" when he was with Minnesota.  Can you imagine?  The captain is supposed to be the one that leads his team on the ice and sets an example, not the one kissing up to the coach. Hitchcock nearly drove one of the game's most incredible players, Sergei Federov, into retirement.  Fortunately, Hitchcock's ineptitude was our gain in 2008.  Because of these and other atrocities, if there were a lifetime disservice to hockey award, these two would be the co-winners, hands down.

The league is nowhere near the days of Wayne Gretzky's record-breaking 1984 Edmonton Oilers team who scored an all-time highest 446 goals, but it's headed in the right direction.  Since the game is evolving away from what was called the Dead Puck era, there will be no use for coaches like Lemaire and Hitchcock. With those two out of the NHL, it definitely signals a new era for the game.  One fans have waited over many years to come.  The game is ruled by exciting offensive-minded players and intense action, which is as it should be.  It is no longer ruled by coaches who tried to take the individuality and excitement out of the game.  It is ruled by players that truly love the game like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who know that fans come to see a good game punctuated by many scoring chances and great skating.

Hitchcock doesn't seem to be done with the game, but after his disastrous run in Philadelphia and leading  Columbus (why that city even has a team, I'll never know) to a whopping one playoff appearance in three years, his services aren't exactly in demand.  But Lemaire, at age 65, has seen the game pass him by and knows the time is right to leave.  You've done enough damage, Jacques, pack your bag and don't look back.

And don't let the door hit ya, where the Good Lord split ya!

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