Lemaire coaches final game in 6-3 Minnesota win; Gaborik saying he’s leaning toward testing free agency

Posted on April 11th, 2009 – 9:03 PM
By Michael Russo

If you want to see Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock’s really nice words and praise for Jacques Lemaire, click this link, go to Hitchcock’s press conference last night and it starts about 2:15 into it. 

I’ve covered a lot of coaching changes in my sportswriting career (OK, none here), but when I grabbed Jacques Lemaire by the shoulder and pulled him aside after his press scrum tonight to talk alone with me and the beat writer across the river, I still was a bit stunned to hear him say what I knew he was going to say.

Just to hear him actually say the words that he was done as the Wild coach was hard to grasp.

I just want to fast forward 20 minutes before I continue, but when I was hustling back up to the press box, outside of the Columbus locker room standing against the wall was Lemaire. He was all alone. He was throwing what I think was a ball against the opposite wall and catching it. And he just looked kind of sad as it hit him that this was really the end to the Jacques Lemaire era in Minnesota.

Lemaire loved coaching the Wild. He loves coaching … period, and that’s why he made this crystal clear that he is not retiring.

He still wants to coach, or work in the game in another capacity, but he re-iterated over and over that he loves to coach.

I have come full-circle on this, but a few weeks ago, I thought all the speculation that he’d be interested in the Montreal job was just crazy. I really believe he’d take it if offered now. And talk about a media circus. If he thought I was annoying, how about me times 50, and in French and English!

Lemaire said he wouldn’t talk about specific teams, but he’ll be looking. Lemaire, if he’s going to coach, must work with somebody he’s had a relationship with. Bob Gainey, he’s got a relationship with. And something else just dawned on me. If its true Serge Savard might buy the Habs, there’s a friendship between he and Lemaire.

“I think it’s time for the players to get a new coach and myself look at other stuff,” Lemaire said.

Will you coach elsewhere? “I’ll see. It’s exciting. It’s an exciting job. I was behind the bench there just before the game there, and I felt I was getting really tight because it’s something I’ve done for 15 years and I like it and I have to go.”

“Have to go.” He later added “I had to make [this decision] for certain reasons.”

Lemaire wouldn’t clarify, but, and this is conjecture, I think he was told, “It’s time, Jacques, for a change. Think about it.” Especially since he told us he won’t be working for the Wild, and the way he said it, and he threw a few other subtle hints at us tonight. Also, the way this went down. Lemaire, much, much, much, much to the team’s chagrin, got this out the way he wanted it out – with radio before the game and the beat writers after the game – rather than the way the front office wanted it released Monday. There were some very frustrated front office and staffers during the game.

As I’ve mentioned countless times, perception’s reality, and there’s got to be a reason the Wild can’t reel in the big fish. I don’t think it’s fair sometimes. There are a lot of defensive coaches in the league. Lots of old-school coaches. But if Lemaire’s the reason, it needed to change.

Lemaire looked like a man ready to go the last few weeks. He went into a number of unsolicited rants with the writers and he rarely went on the ice on game mornings. And there’s been clear tension between he and the team in the past couple weeks (more on that in a sec).

Now, before I continue, if you’re one of the people out there that thinks Jacques leaving gets Marian Gaborik to re-sign, you’re wrong. Gaborik said it changes nothing and he said after the game that he knows he’s a free agent and he’s waited this long and it would be cool to hear from 29 other teams.

So Gaborik, although he added he’d listen to the Wild if it comes to him (so did Brian Rolston, by the way, and he left after rejecting offers), might have played his final game in Minnesota. He scored two goals and an assist and was plus-3. He had an impressive 10 goals and 18 points in 11 games since returning. In fact, every unrestricted free agent except Stephane Veilleux (so Foster, Bergeron, Skoula and Gaborik twice) scored tonight.

As I wrote tomorrow, there’s been a lot of tension. People ask me all the time why I rarely take road trips off but do take home practices off. On the road, you’re around the team, the players aren’t in a rush to get home to their lives, so you get an idea of what’s really going on inside the room.

Players have been getting frustrated with Lemaire. They’ve been talking back to him. There was an incident during practice Thursday when one player cursed at him. There’s been a big rift between he and James Sheppard, one Doug Risebrough had to get involved with. Players have been furious with the few days off. 

Lemaire did not deny this stuff, especially the problems with Sheppard, saying none of this stuff is abnormal. But I think Lemaire just started to realize it was indeed time. This was a team damaged bigtime by injuries, but he still had trouble getting the team to play the way he wants. Jacques Lemaire teams play it tight. The Wild, in December and March, were routinely down by two or three goals. That killed him.

And Lemaire did not tell the players after the game he was done. The beat writers did, which says a lot.

So what now?

Doug Risebrough wanted to give Lemaire his time with the beat writers and said he’d talk at a news conference scheduled for Monday at 10:30 a.m.

Obviously, Risebrough’s known for some time Lemaire was stepping down, so he’s got to have an idea of a list.

There’s Guy Carbonneau. There’s Tom Renney. There’s Peter Laviolette. And there’s Kevin Constantine.

But maybe Risebrough should wait and see who else becomes available, like maybe Lindy Ruff or Craig MacTavish. There are also solid assistants, like Todd Richards in San Jose or John Torchetti in Chicago.

I’ve got to say, I thoroughly enjoyed covering Lemaire. Just a great coach, and a genuinely good guy.

Lastly, here’s some stuff that might have gotten squeezed out of paper:

Assistant GM Tom Lynn said that Wild forward Dan Fritsche sustained a dislocated clavicle when he was hit by Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo on Friday night. It was put back in place and “he will be fine after a period of recovery.”
Of the Wild’s other unidentified injuries, Derek Boogaard had a shoulder injury and Nick Schultz has concussion-like symptoms.

Stephane Veilleux, 27, a third-round pick in 2001, was nervous Saturday was his 361st and last game in a Wild uniform.
“My best wish is to stay here,” Veilleux said. “I have close to 400 games in the same organization. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here. I gave my 100 percent to this organization. But I know this could be it.”

Veilleux said he received a reality check last summer when he was negotiating his own contract with the Wild. To show Veilleux he wasn’t as valuable as he thought, the Wild placed him on waivers. There were no takers, although that was deceiving because any team that took him would have had to go to a last-second arbitration hearing with him.

“It’s a crazy business,” Veilleux said. “It was proved to me last year when I was put on waivers. You think you’re out there and a guy the organization trusts and likes, and the next day, they’re saying you’re a replaceable player. It makes you realize you might be replaceable at any time.

“My best wish is to stay here, but maybe they just want to get new players.”

Marc-Andre Bergeron, 28, had similar anxiety, and he finished only his first season in Minnesota. He scored 14 goals, the second most by a defenseman in Wild history, yet he doesn’t know what will happen this summer.

“I’ve shown some offense over my last contract,” said Bergeron, who’s scored 61 goals in the past five years. “I just hope I showed something decent and I get a chance to keep playing in the NHL. I’d like something to work out here because it’s nerve-racking.”

The Wild wanted more days off. Guess what? They’ve got one Sunday. I don’t. Lots of writing ahead, and I’ll be on Rosen’s Sports Sunday on Ch. 4 Sunday night.

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