In 2017, the New Jersey Devils unveiled the Ring of Honor at Prudential Center. The rightful first inductee was John J. McMullen, the man responsible for bringing the Devils to New Jersey. On Jan. 20, the organization will induct their second member of the Ring of Honor in a game against the Dallas Stars. Why was there a seven-year gap between the first and second inductees? Because it is difficult to decide who deserves the next induction.
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Building a team’s identity is a long process that began with Dr. McMullen bringing hockey to the Garden State. New Jersey was able to build its identity after years of searching. The Devils are remembered for three things: Their three Stanley Cup championships, Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, and “The Trap” — a neutral zone trap that became synonymous with the team in the 1990s. The Trap helped propel the organization to relevancy and to win, but the style of play was heavily criticized for their low-scoring and somewhat boring games. But it is a big part of the Devils’ history and their identity.
Therefore, the man who is credited with bringing this style of play to New Jersey should be the next Ring of Honor inductee. Jacques Lemaire became head coach of the Devils in 1993 and brought an organization desperate for wins their first-ever Stanley Cup.
After a 12-year NHL playing career with the Montreal Canadiens, Lemaire began his coaching career with the Canadiens in 1983. In 1993-94, he joined the Devils and reached the Eastern Conference Semifinal and won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Then, in the 1994-95 season, he led the Devils to their first Cup championship in franchise history. In his first coaching stint with New Jersey, Lemaire had a 199-110-57 record, and after five seasons with the club, in 2000-01, he became the first-ever head coach of the Minnesota Wild.
After seven seasons in Minnesota, Lemaire made his return to New Jersey in the 2009-10 season. His second stint was not as successful, with a 77-44-10 record. After 2010-11, he announced his retirement from coaching, “I’m going back where I was before. It demands a lot, and I want to enjoy life. I want to enjoy the family.” (from ‘Jacques Lemaire announces retirement,’ Sportsnet, 04/10/11) Lemaire retired a prominent figure in the Devils’ organization.
Devils Historical Identity
In the 1980s, the Devils did not qualify for the playoffs until the 1987-88 season when they lost in the conference finals to the Boston Bruins. They missed the playoffs or lost in the division semifinals every season. In 1983, Wayne Gretzky famously called out the franchise after a 13-4 stomping by the Edmonton Oilers.
“Well, it’s time they got their act together. They’re ruining the whole league,” Gretzky said. “They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice.” The new franchise had no identity until Lemaire took the reins.
The new franchise had no identity until Lemaire took the reins and introduced the trap to the Devils. The style of play focuses on clogging the neutral zone and intercepting passes to prevent the opposition from advancing and wait for an offensive opportunity. This led to low-scoring and low-event games that some even wanted to ban, but Lemaire and the Devils implemented the trap so perfectly that they found success and a Cup championship.
Despite the controversy, Lemaire stuck to the style that shaped the Devils’ identity and made them contenders. It is hard to imagine how the Devils would have formed their identity without Lemaire, a nine-time Stanley Cup champion who is underrated amongst the fanbase.
Jacques Lemaire’s Accolades
Besides playing 853 NHL games, shaping an organization’s identity, and being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, his list of accolades extends even more. In 2017, he was named one the “100 Greatest NHL Players” by the NHL, who compiled the list in honor of 100 years of the NHL. In Devils franchise history, he holds the top spot in five coaching achievements. Lemaire coached 509 games, won 276 games, earned 619 points, coached 61 playoff games, and won 35 playoff games. Currently, he ranks 20th in all-time coaching wins with 617. At the time of his 600th win, he was only the eighth coach to do so in NHL history. Lemaire was also an assistant coach alongside Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock for Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics and helped lead the team to a gold medal. Today, he is a special assignment coach with the New York Islanders.
Jacques Lemaire is the obvious choice for the Ring of Honor. Few people have been as successful, defining, and important to the history of the franchise. Implementing a new style of play into the game has the potential to fail and be left unsuccessful. However, it led to the ultimate goal: winning. Lemaire deserves credit and recognition for what he did for the Devils and the league. Hopefully, he will get that recognition on Jan. 20.