Monday, January 14, 2008

Stepping into a dynasty

When a young man uses a heavy steel puck to develop his hockey skills, you know he is destined for greatness.

Lemaire played all of his youth in Montreal.

In two seasons with the Montreal Junior Canadiens (then part of the Ontario Hockey League) from 1964-65 and 1965-66, Jacques Lemaire honed his craft and learned that it took more than skill to further a career.

Major junior hockey has been a main breeding ground for up and coming National Hockey League players. It’s where young men learn to excel through perseverance, discipline, work ethic, and sometimes pure adrenaline. There is a strong emphasis on education in today’s junior hockey ranks. But back in the early 1960s, that wasn’t always the case.

“It was different in our days,” admits Lemaire. “It was not as well organized as today, the school and hockey. It seemed kind of hard to do both because of traveling. We were a Canadian team from Quebec playing in Ontario so all the teams we played against were in Ontario. There was quite a bit of travel.”

At the time, players almost had to make a decision between playing hockey and going to school. Those that made the decision to play, if they wanted to go to school, they had to find time during the summer. For the rest, they took advantage of making a little bit of money and worked, like Lemaire.

“I played hockey in the winter, and I was working for Coca Cola on the delivery as soon as the season finished. At training camp, I stopped. I worked for Coca Cola, then after I worked for Labatt Brewery, then Molson a bit.

“Hockey-wise, I found it was a little hard at times. We had no money at home. I think in those days they were giving us $18 or $16 a week. I remember when Scotty Bowman was our coach; he made us work at times in the winter at the arena. We’d clean the old Forum. We used to sweep the stairs and wash the stairs. They were paying us 50 cents an hour for that. We had to work hard for what we got. A lot of guys appreciated it at the time when they got a good job.”

Lemaire admits there is a lot more teaching in today’s junior ranks than there was in his days. He says the coaches didn’t have the know-how that they do now.

“We went on the ice and did what we had to do. If you’re not good enough, you’re not playing. That’s it. You’ll learn from better players. You’ll learn from watching the NHL. You’ll learn from other guys that were good on the team.”

Lemaire played a total of 104 games for the Junior Canadiens, posting 66 goals, 99 assists, and 165 points. He only clocked in penalty minutes (69) in his second season.

There is one fact of hockey that transcends every generation of player, particularly in junior: the myriad of stories. Although, considering this is an age where young testosterone-filled adolescent males are establishing their manhood, sometimes one can pry a “printable” story.

“I remember when Scotty Bowman was our coach,” says Lemaire about a road trip, “he put our curfew at 10:30. He said, ‘I don’t want any TV on past 10:30.’ He went to get a key to get into all the rooms. So he would open the door quick and go over to touch the TV, because if you were watching TV, it would be warm. A guy put a cold towel on the TV so the TV stayed cold, and he put the chain on so Scotty couldn’t get in. When he tried to get in, he’d say, ‘Open the door quick!’ So he took the towel off before Scotty could check the TV, and it was okay.”

He tells another story about the team meal. “When we had our team dinner on the road, we had one dollar. We had to get lunch with that. If it cost $1.05, you had to bring the bill plus five cents and give it back to the manager.”

Lemaire played the game of hockey because it was fun. He thoroughly enjoyed the game. But he could never have predicted how much fun his NHL career would prove to be.

After 69 games during the 1966-67 season with the Houston Apollos (19 goals, 30 assists, 49 points, 19 penalty minutes and six playoff games: 0-1-1, 0 PIM), the NHL beckoned and he never looked back.

His rookie 1967-68 season culminated with his first Stanley Cup.

The Montreal Canadiens were rich in NHL history long before the young center suited up his number 25 jersey. Its first Stanley Cup win was March 30, 1916 following a 2-1 victory over the Portland Rosebuds in five games.

The second Cup came in 1924. Howie Morenz scored at 4:55 in the first period to cement a 3-0 win over the Calgary Tigers. In 1930 (third Cup), Morenz scored the game winner at 15:43 in the second period to defeat the Boston Bruins 4-3. In the 1931 Cup final (fourth Cup), the Habs won 2-0 over Chicago; won (fifth) 5-4 against Chicago in 1944 (Lemaire’s future head coach Toe Blake scored the game winner at 9:12 in the first overtime); won (sixth) 6-3 versus the Bruins in 1946 (Blake scored the game winner at 11:06 of the third); won 1-0 (seventh) against Boston in 1953; (eighth) 3-1 against Detroit in 1956; (ninth) 5-1 versus Boston in 1957; (10th) 5-3 against Boston in 1958; (11th) 5-3 against Toronto in 1959; (12th) 4-0 over Toronto in 1960; (13th) 4-0 over Chicago in 1965; and won its 14th Cup with a 3-2 win over Detroit in 1966.

The home of the Habs, The Forum, was built in 1924 and accommodated 10,000 and opened its doors November 29, although an ice problem delayed it becoming the team’s permanent home until November 18, 1926. It was renovated up to 13,551 seats in 1949 and to 16,003 seats in 1968. It proudly and prominently displayed the team’s 14 Stanley Cup banners.

So for any player coming to Montreal, the weight of previous Stanley Cups permeated the room. Fans expected more, so did the organization, and the media. There was no place to hide if you didn’t perform.

Lemaire realized right away, from his first day in rookie camp, that Montreal did not approach hockey the same as other organizations. There was more scrutiny and more demands. Fortunately for Lemaire, his stick found the back of the net a respectable 22 times that season. In 69 games, he also recorded 20 assists for 42 points and 16 penalty minutes. His team had finished the season in first place in the East Division with 94 points.

But it was Lemaire’s playoff record that left a more lasting impression.

En route to the final, the Habs eliminated Chicago and Minnesota. It faced the St. Louis Blues in the Cup final (which finished third in the West Division with 70 points). The Blues were stacked with a roster of former and soon to be Habs, such as Red Berenson, Doug Harvey, Bill McCreary, Dickie Moore, Noel Picard, Barclay Plager, Jacques Plante, Jimmy Roberts, and Jean-Guy Talbot, plus coach Scotty Bowman and scout Cliff Fletcher.

Game one of the Stanley Cup final was played on May 5, 1968. The score was tied at 2-2 and the teams had just returned to the ice for the first overtime period. Lemaire felt his coach Toe Blake tap him on the shoulder. He was next on the ice.

Lemaire had been following the play from the bench, so he was able to jump into the flow of the game right away. He took a pass at the St. Louis blueline, let his shot go, and then saw the goal light go on behind Blues goalie Glenn Hall. The next thing he knew, his teammates were congratulating him. The goal was unassisted at 1:41. It was also his second overtime goal of the playoffs and a record for NHL rookies. The Habs went on to defeat the Blues in four games, with each of those games won by a goal, plus two were decided in overtime.

In 13 games, Lemaire’s playoff record stood at 7-6-13, and six penalty minutes.

One would think a rookie year like that would be hard to top. Fortunately for Lemaire, it was only the beginning.


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