- 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?
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.