As Jacques Lemaire the movie freak tells it, Jacques Lemaire the hockey player used to be the shooting machine that couldn't shoot straight. Lemaire averaged almost 30 goals a season for the Montreal Canadiens the last five years, not a bad record for the ordinary expansion forward, perhaps, but not very impressive for a swift skater whose shot is among the five heaviest in hockey. Lemaire's trouble was this: he would get the puck on his curved stick somewhere near the blue line, take a full backswing and then flail aimlessly away. Occasionally his shot would zip past a startled goaltender, but most times the goalie casually would catch the puck or else it would land in section B, row 4, seat 7 of the rouges. Last year, for instance, Lemaire fired 58 more shots than his little line-mate, Yvan Cournoyer, but Cournoyer scored 15 more goals.
"One night I studied how Phil Esposito plays center," Lemaire says, "and I discovered that I was not playing the right way. Esposito does not score from the blue line or the red line. He scores all his goals from right in front of the net. Why not Jacques Lemaire?" This year Lemaire has become an inside specialist, floating about 20 feet in front of the net and firing from close range—and suddenly the shooting machine is shooting straight. As the week ended, Lemaire led the NHL with 29 goals, eight more than Esposito and Cournoyer—and the season had not yet reached the halfway point. "I have a big bonus for 35 goals," Lemaire says, smiling, "and a big, big bonus if I finish among the top 10 in the scoring race."
"I really don't care to think where we would be without Lemaire," says Coach Scotty Bowman. "Look at it this way. We're a one-line team now—Lemaire, Cournoyer and Chuck Lefley have scored more than 40% of our goals—and Lemaire makes that one line work." Inspired by the new Lemaire, the Canadiens were in first place from opening night until last Friday when the surging Boston Bruins, who have lost only once in their last 20 games, shut out the Minnesota North Stars 2-0. Less than 24 hours later, however, the Canadiens reclaimed a share of the top spot as Cournoyer scored to tie the troublesome Atlanta Flames.
"The trick," says Lemaire, "will be to stay on top. It will not be easy. Take what happened this week. We go into Minnesota and the North Stars think they can beat us—and they do. But the Bruins, ah, the North Stars don't think they can beat Boston—and they don't. It is the same thing everywhere. We don't scare teams like Boston does."
All this could change, though, if Goal-tender Ken Dryden becomes brilliant again, if Defenseman Serge Savard begins to play as flawlessly and as effectively as he did against the Russians, if Peter Mahovlich (eight goals) and Henri Richard (none) rediscover the net, and, of course, if Lemaire continues to score and set up the elusive Cournoyer.
Although Dryden and his backup goalie, rookie Michel Plasse, lead the Vezina Trophy race by a comfortable 18 goals, Dryden, who started 32 of Montreal's first 37 games, has not been really sharp. "I had a heavy academic load during that time," he says, "and it caught up with me. But I finished law school just before Christmas and it will be strictly hockey from here on out." Not quite. Besides playing goal, Dryden plans to study French at McGill University, investigate the merits of yoga as a post-game relaxant and play basketball, handball or squash each day after practice.
At least Dryden will not have to worry about stopping Lemaire. Born and raised in the Montreal suburb of Ville LaSalle, Jacques was one of the rare youngsters in Quebec who was not an addict of Les Canadiens. "They were too good," he says. "They won all the time. There was no use going to their games or watching them on television because it was always the same thing. My brother Yvan knew every player in the league, but I knew only Jean Beliveau and the Richard brothers." Perversely, Lemaire became the No. 1 fan of the Lachine Maroons, a junior team.
"To me," Lemaire says, "the Maroons were the Canadiens. Yvan Cournoyer was their star, and I went to see them play every week." Lemaire later played for the Maroons, and then he graduated to the Junior Canadiens in Canada's top amateur league. Like most French Canadians, Lemaire was a natural skater but his shot was not particularly quick or hard until he began to spend hours each day firing pucks against a driveway wall. In 1966 he turned professional, and the Canadiens shuffled him to Houston for seasoning.
"I could not speak more than a word or two of English when I got there," Lemaire says. "My roommate, Norm Ferguson, could not speak more than a word or two of French." In Houston, Lemaire became a television nut, and now he watches quiz shows, soap operas, Westerns, gangster films and war movies from morning until morning.
When Lemaire joined the Canadiens in 1967, he immediately posed what proved to be a five-year problem for the club's management. "They didn't know whether I should be a center or a left wing," he says. "It got pretty confusing at times." As a center Lemaire was hardly another Jean Beliveau, and as a left wing no one ever confused him with John Ferguson or Frank Mahovlich. Still, Lemaire scored 32 goals in two different seasons and played well in Stanley Cup games. In 1971 one of his 75-foot blasts beat Chicago Goalie Tony Esposito and started Montreal's winning rally in the seventh game of the final series.
Last summer Brown decided that Lemaire would play exclusively at center and that Cournoyer would be his right wing. Since neither Lemaire nor Cournoyer is an adept backchecker, Bowman had to find a left wing who would not object to playing defensive forward for the two gunners. Bowman tried Lefley, a rookie, and the line clicked.
"They used to think that I needed two rough guys on my wings," Lemaire says. "At one time I worked with John Ferguson and Claude Larose, and whenever we were on the ice there was a fight. I spent all my time picking up gloves. Lefley is pretty rough and can handle himself, but if you have a tough defense—and we do—then you don't need all tough guys up front. Speed is more important."
Oddly enough, one reason why the Lemaire-Cournoyer-Lefley line leads the NHL in scoring is that Lemaire has persuaded Cournoyer to utilize his brakes as well as his accelerator. "When I played with Yvan before," he says, "I always tried to make long passes so he could go off on a breakaway. But now I want to handle the puck, like Beliveau used to, and make better plays. So I tell Yvan to slow down and let me pull the defensemen away from him. When they leave him, I pass the puck to him—and then he's gone."
And when they leave the new Lemaire, he's gone.