Lemaire leaves Wild; other big changes aheadby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Wild's only head coach bid farewell to his team today. Jacques Lemaire announced he won't return for a ninth season with the hockey team. His departure is likely to be just the first of many changes at the team's home arena.
St. Paul, Minn. — As hockey goes, Jacques Lemaire is practically a one-man dream team. While a player with the Montreal Canadiens, he helped win eight Stanley Cups, two of them with his own game-winning goals.
After retiring as a player, Lemaire took up coaching and led the New Jersey Devils to yet another Cup.
In 2000, he started a franchise from scratch when the Minnesota Wild took the ice for their inaugural season. But Lemaire has decided he's had enough.
"The team needs this," he said at a news conference in St. Paul today.
Lemaire talked about his departure just days after his final game as coach in Columbus, Ohio, where his team beat the Blue Jackets, 6-3.
"It's not that I cannot go back and work with them, and try to push them again," said Lemaire. "That's not the case. The case is I know this thing will be better with another guy."
Lemaire's record with the Wild was 291-256, with 107 ties, including winning records in his last six seasons.
Lemaire's departure didn't come as a surprise to hockey fans. He first announced he was leaving over the weekend, just days after the team was eliminated from the playoffs for the fifth time in the Wild's history.
Lemaire had hinted he was thinking of leaving, even last year.
But both the coach and the team sounded ready to move on as they gathered for the last time in the locker room at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul today. The players were packing up their equipment and undergoing post-season physicals.
Some, like forward James Sheppard, said they looked forward to a change behind the Wild bench.
Sheppard was part of what observers called a growing disconnect between the players and Lemaire, particularly over the coach's emphasis on defense.
"It wasn't that we didn't see eye to eye, per se. I have been playing hockey since I was 3, so it's not like I am new to the game. But I am new to the way Jacques did things," said Sheppard. "It wasn't that we didn't like each other. It was just that sometimes he didn't understand, or I didn't understand where he was coming from."
But others, like rising star and center Mikko Koivu, sounded sorry to see Lemaire go.
"I was on his team for four years, and came to the league as a rookie, and I think that's one of the best coaches you can have -- especially the start of your career," said Koivu. "Every day you can learn something, and I realize that even more in the future. But I learned a lot."
Despite Lemair's departure, the most critical changes for the Minnesota Wild may be yet to come.
Six of the Wild's 25 roster players are eligible for free agency, including the team's often-injured star, Marion Gaborik. A very different team will likely take the ice next fall.
Gaborik was at his stall in the team locker room for what many believe will be the last time today. He acknowleged his differences with Lemaire.
"He taught me how to play overall game. Obviously, I am more offensive minded, but he had a great impact on my career," said Gaborik.
But Gaborik didn't sound inclined to find out how he'd adjust to Lemaire's successor, either.
"I'm not under contract, and I am 27 years old. It's kind of cool that I am still young, and can hear from all the other teams," said Gaborik. "Your adrenaline gets going, and you're looking forward to what's out there."
The team's general manager Doug Risebrough made only a brief mention of Gaborik, but singled out Koivu and goalie Niklas Backstrom, who played the last month of the season despite injury. Risebrough skirted any discussion of changes to the team roster.
Risebrough himself is one of the last remaining links to the team's beginnings. The Wild has changed stars and owners, and Risebrough said the squad was ready for a coaching change, as well.
"Jacques' era has ended. We have won as a franchise. We've had winning seasons, we've had success in the playoffs and this franchise is on a solid footing," he said.
Risebrough said he expects to hire a new coach for the team by the middle of July.
- All Things Considered, 04/13/2009, 4:45 p.m.