This season, Jacques Lemaire showed the entire league the reason he's won both the Jack Adams Award and a Stanley Cup championship.
Brought in to guide the floundering New Jersey Devils, Lemaire turned around New Jersey's play. His team, currently on their longest winning streak since 2009, finally looks to be playing Devils hockey.
So it comes as a surprise to some that Lemaire told reporters he wouldn't return as Devils coach next season. For a man who's collected achievements throughout his playing and coaching career, it's time to ride off into the sunset on top of his game.
Lemaire first broke into the NHL as a Montreal Canadiens in 1967-68. He spent his entire 12-year career with Montreal, winning eight Stanley Cup championships and recording 835 points.
After retiring in 1979, Lemaire began his coaching career. He coached the Canadiens for two seasons (1983-1985), then spent time with them as an assistant. And while he earned two more championships rings as an assistant, it would be with the Devils that Lemaire made his name in coaching.
Lemaire joined the Devils for his first stint as head coach during the 1993-94 season, leading his team to an eventual conference championship defeat. The very next season, Lemaire led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup championship ever. It also marked his first - and only - championship as a head coach.
Lemaire went on to coach the Minnesota Wild and rejoined the Devils during the 2009-2010 season. He announced his retirement after last season, ending a 16 year head coaching run. During that time, Lemaire won two Jack Adams Awards and the one championship.
But hockey tends to stay in a person's blood. So when Lou Lamoriello called Lemaire to take over his floundering team, the coach jumped at the chance.
"You get back in and it's a game that I played and that I coached for 15 years, 16 years and one day you decide to retire, it doesn't mean that if you get a chance to get back, it doesn't matter the reason, the fire you had inside you stays there," Lemaire told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "You've just got the pilot and then you turn up the valve and then you get that fire. That's what happened."
It wasn't an easy return. Lemaire watched the team go 1-7-0 in his first eight games and routinely grasped for answers. He blamed his players for being out of shape and for a lack of team play. He skated players hard in practice and worked on every facet of their game.
The improvements worked, leading to a 6-0-1 run. While the Devils are still stuck in last place, they are a better team today then a month ago. Even that improvement can't convince Lemaire to stay on as coach next season.
"I find it's (coaching) tough. It's hard," Lemaire told Gulitti. I'm not at the end of the season yet. I still have two, three months to go and will have tough days. I get back from road trips and I get more tired than when I was 40."
Therein lies the issue. Despite Lemaire's obvious excellent coaching abilities, all those road trips are finally catching up to him. Every career has an ending, and it seems Lemaire's is in the immediate horizon.
Lemaire doesn't want to leave the Devils in a bind. He knows the playoffs are a longshot, and wants to re-establish a foundation for the Devils.
"This is what I always try to build up every team I coach," Lemaire said to Gulitti. "I want the guys to know what he has to do win and that is the foundation of the team, knowing what you have to do to win and trying to go with every practice and work hard so you can get better. This is what I'm trying to get - confidence back to the players so they believe in themselves."
When Lemaire first took over behind the bench, many fans reacted with a sigh and shake of the head. This was the same coach who presided over a fractured locker room last season. The same coach who looked lost during an embarrassing five-game series first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The same guy who made fans excited when he decided to retire.
Today, Lemaire's influence cannot be understated. He was the figurative knight in shining armor for the Devils this season. Before his arrival, New Jersey was a franchise spinning out of control. He's brought back Devils hockey when it seemed it died and was forgotten. He knows he won't get to the postseason, and that's ok with most fans. They've forgiven him for the transgressions of last season and just want to see the team succeed.
We all want to see the Cinderella ending - Lemaire and his team overtake everyone and make the playoffs, and maybe ride off into the sunset with a surprising fourth championship. But sometimes reality isn't that kind.
Lemaire is showing the entire league what he's got left. But the Devils coach has nothing left to prove. When the season ends, he'll pack his bags and head back home, knowing he's done his best in his time behind the bench.