Remember Lemaire

  • Monday, April 26, 2010 5:18 PM
  • Written By: Jake Simpson


Over the past 15 years, the New York Yankees have been the metro area’s most successful professional sports franchise. But who comes in second? Which teams has won three national titles, made 13 playoff appearances and boasts a surefire future Hall of Famer?

Any guesses?

That’s right, all you Essex County dwellers, it’s the New Jersey Devils. Stanley Cup champions in 1995, 2000 and 2003, the Devils have a savvy general manager (Lou Lamoriello), a legendary goaltender (Martin Brodeur) and a superfan for the ages:

They also had a former NHL great lead the franchise to its first championship, establish New Jersey as a perennial contender, and return 11 years later to coach them to a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

But a first-round playoff loss has led to the end of Jacques Lemaire’s time as Devils’ head coach. Lemaire announced his retirement from coaching on Monday, marking the end of his 16–year coaching career. And his place in Devils’ history should be not forgotten.

Lemaire has been largely overlooked by the average New York sports fan, while Mike Keenan has an everlasting place in New York lore for taking the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup title. That team’s remarkable run to end the Blueshirts’ 54-year title drought remains a seminal New York sports moment, and with good reason. But had Stephane Matteau’s double-OT shot in Game 7 not found its way under Brodeur’s pads, it might have been Lemaire hoisting the Stanley Cup that June.

Instead of allowing the demoralizing, season-ending loss to cripple his team’s confidence the following year, Lemaire led New Jersey to a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division and a berth in the playoffs.

Once the postseason started, the Devils were unstoppable. They steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs and dispatched the Flyers in six games to reach their first Stanley Cup finals. Standing between New Jersey and a championship was the Detroit Red Wings, who owned the NHL’s best record and were expected to manhandle the Devils.

But it was Lemaire’s squad that did the manhandling, sweeping Detroit in a series that was actually more lopsided than it looked. The Devils won the last three games by a combined score of 14-6, riding captain Scott Stevens and playoff MVP Claude Lemieux to the Stanley Cup. It was the first pro title for a New Jersey team in 19 years.

The measure of a coach is not whether he can win when the deck is stacked in his favor. It’s his ability to pull his team through adversity and elicit the best performances from his players when it matters most. Lemaire did both, and his steady leadership paved the way to the Cup.

Lemaire was unable to harness another postseason run in the following years, leaving after a first-round playoff exit in 1998. He left behind a franchise that would make three Cup finals in the next five years and remains one of the elite teams in the NHL. That's more than enough to salute him as he bids hockey goodbye.

At the very least, it should make you remember his name.

Read more of Jake Simpson on the original "Back Page" blog.

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One Good Week (For The Yankees)

  • Monday, April 12, 2010 5:01 PM
  • Written By: Jake Simpson


New York sports. Few subjects are more polarizing to sports fans. You hate the Yankees. You love the Yankees. You loathe Eli Manning and live to see him pout after an INT. You firmly believe Justin Tuck could be a poor man’s Lawrence Taylor for the next decade. You want to kill Derek Jeter. You want to marry Derek Jeter.

Love it or hate it, the Big Apple sports scene is worthy of your attention. And I’m going to bring it to you, from the Yankees to high school sports (or for those seeking a catchier tagline, from the Bronx to the Belt Parkway.) Enjoy.

Headlines out of the city have been mixed this week. While the Nets have pushed above 10 wins, the Rangers blew a third-period lead and lost their de facto play-in game in a shootout — to the Flyers, no less. Today’s big news is no different — the Jets got Steelers’ wide receiver Santonio Holmes for the bargain-basement price of a fifth-round draft price, but only because Holmes has been suspended for the first four games of the season and has a long history of off-the-field legal troubles.

In the sea of mixed bags, one New York team had an undeniably positive week. That would be the Yankees.

The defending champs opened the season with road series at Boston and Tampa Bay, their two primary division rivals. With notoriously slow starter CC Sabathia getting the ball twice in that stretch, a 2-4 start would not have been unexpected. Instead, the Bombers took both series and are 4-2 after the first week of the regular season.

Though their record can be extrapolated to 108-54 (which means about as much as the AL-East leading Blue Jays being on pace to finish 135-27), the Yankees can be happy about much more than early-season winning percentage. Their biggest off-season acquisition, center fielder Curtis Granderson, has started hot, with a 1.075 OPS and a pair of game-winning hits against the Red Sox. Ageless wonder Jorge Posada has an .824 slugging percentage, so far defying many (this scribe included) who said his production would fall off this season. And while Nick Johnson is hitting an anemic .136, his OBP is a respectable .367 thanks to a team-high seven walks.

Then there’s Sabathia. The big fella struggled late on Opening Night, giving up a three-run lead in a come-from-ahead loss for the Yankees. But on Saturday, he turned in one of the best performances of his career, pitching no-hit ball for 7 2/3 innings against the Rays in a dominating performance. Sabathia has historically struggled in April; if he’s already dialed in, watch out.

The Yanks have started fast despite no home runs from Alex Rodriguez and a .125 average from Mark Teixeira. They haven’t played a home game yet, and they have exactly two hits from their bench.

Yes, the season is barely a week old. Yes, six games is barely a blip, let alone a representative sample. But the defending champs have come out and played stellar baseball, on the road, against top competition. It’s a long way from defending a World Series title. But it’s a very good start.

Read more of Jake Simpson on the original "Back Page" blog.