Jacques Lemaire recorded his 600th coaching win on Thursday in an overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anything the New Jersey Devils' coach touches these days turns to gold, as his team just can't lose. He now sits in eighth place on the all-time coaching wins list, with Scotty Bowman leading the way with 1,244.
Lemaire has been behind the bench for parts of 17 seasons, for three teams, Montreal, Minnesota and, of course, New Jersey, and his record stands at 601-449-124, with one Stanley Cup under his belt. But what makes him unique is the fact that besides having a Hall-of-Fame-caliber coaching career, he was a Hall-of-Fame player, as well. Enshrined in the Pro Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984, Lemaire played 12 seasons with the Canadiens, winning eight Stanley Cups. He scored 366 goals, with 469 assists, for 835 points, recorded a plus-349 and was the consummate two-way center. Now we need to ask the question: Are there any other New York-area teams that have had a leader with those credentials as both coach and player?
The Devils themselves also had Hall-of-Famer Larry Robinson behind the bench, but his coaching numbers fail to approach Lemaire's. Jim Schoenfeld had a nice playing and coaching career, but neither was as stellar as Lemaire's. The New York Islanders boasted one of the all-time coaching greats in Al Arbour (second behind Bowman in wins, at 782, and four Stanley Cups), and though he had a solid 14-year career as a defensive defenseman with Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and St. Louis, it wasn't Hall of Fame worthy.
The New York Rangers have had a handful of Hall of Fame players briefly coach them, with the likes of Frank Boucher, Phil Esposito and Bryan Trottier, but they aren't even in the same world as Lemaire is as a coach (though Boucher's tenure was certainly more successful and lengthy than either of the brief reigns of Esposito and Trottier). And the team's legendary coaches--Emile Francis, Mike Keenan, Fred Shero, Herb Brooks--either never played in the NHL or their time was fleeting.
We have to go all the way back to original Ranger coach Lester Patrick to find one that comes close to the Devils' coach. After a 22-year Hall-of-Fame playing career as a defenseman and rover for such old-time teams as the Victoria Aristocrats, Montreal Wanderers, Edmonton Professionals and Spokane Canaries, Patrick spent 13 years behind the Blueshirts' bench, compiling a 281-216-107 record (in 44- and 48-game seasons) and winning two Stanley Cups. He was one of the forefathers of the NHL and once even had a division named after him.
Two New York Yankees can be considered: Joe Torre and Clark Griffith. Torre had a close-to-Hall-of-Fame playing career, spanning 18 years with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets. He put up a .297/.365/.454 line, while hitting 252 home runs and driving in 1,185 runs. He was a nine-time All-Star, won the 1971 MVP and led the league in batting that season, with a .363 average. His managing career was even more impressive. Well, once he came to the Bronx that is.
In 29 years, with the Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Yankees and Dodgers, he recorded a 2,326-1,997 mark, and won four World Series. While the Bombers had a smattering of legendary managers with decent playing careers (Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, Lou Piniella) or Hall-of-Fame players but short-lived managing careers (Yogi Berra, Bob Lemon), one must reach back to the team's Highlanders days to find a Jacques Lemaire type. And this one was a three-way threat: Hall-of-Fame player, long managing career and owner.
After pitching for 20 years, beginning in the prehistoric 1800s, for a multitude of teams, putting up a 237-146 record and 3.31 ERA, Clark Griffith managed for 20 seasons (five-plus in New York), winning 1,491 and losing 1,367. He then went on to own the Washington Senators. The Mets' candidates consist of Gil Hodges (273/.359/.487, 370 home runs, 1,274 RBIs, eight-time All-Star; 660-753 record managing the Senators and Mets, with one World Series) and Davey Johnson (.261/.340/.404, 136 home runs, 609 RBIs, four-time All-Star, 43 HR, 99 RBIs in 1973; 1,148-888 record as manager, with one World Series), but neither are Hall of Famers as players or managers (though many would argue that point about Hodges' qualifications).
While the New York Knicks had all-time great players Willis Reed and (don't make me mention him) Isiah Thomas as coaches, and legendary coaches Red Holzman (who had a six-year playing career) and Don Nelson (14-year playing career), it was blink-and-you'll-miss-him Knick coach Lenny Wilkins, who was a playing and coaching phenomenon. Inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player, Wilkins spent 15 years with the St. Louis Hawks, Seattle, Cleveland and Portland, averaging 16.5 points per game with 6.7 assists. He coached for an astounding 32 seasons, beginning as a player-coach, and racked up a 1,332-1,155 mark with Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto and the Knicks, and led the Supersonics to a championship in 1979.
The only New Jersey/New York Net worthy of consideration is Kevin Loughery, who played 11 seasons with Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia, averaging 15.3 points per game as a guard. He compiled a 642-746 record in 20 seasons as a coach with the 76ers, the Nets, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington and Miami, and led the Nets to two ABA championships.
The New York Jets and New York Giants have either had great players with not-so-successful coaching resumes (Sammy Baugh, Alex Webster), legendary coaches with good playing careers (Steve Owen, Dan Reeves) or just decent but not spectacular at both (Walt Michaels, Herm Edwards, Jim Lee Howell).
Lemaire's closest competition when it comes to length and quality of both a playing and coaching career comes from Patrick, Torre, Griffith and Wilkins. But out of those coaches/players, only Patrick joins Lemaire as one who has won a championship as a coach in New York/New Jersey and has been elected to the Hall of Fame as a player. So with Jacque Lemaire's recent accomplishment, he's in rare air indeed.