Of all the mad schemes dreamed up by professional athletes to wangle more money out of management, the one concocted by Jacques Lemaire deserved the trophy for originality. That at least was the consensus last spring when the classy forward for the Montreal Canadiens announced that he was going to defect to Switzerland to serve as player, coach and general manager for a team of young amateurs in some Alpine outpost called Sierre.
The disbelief and wisecracks about Lemaire going one-on-one with a mountain goat were understandable. After all, if not to gain bargaining power in his contract negotiations, why else would the leading scorer in the 1979 Stanley Cup playoffs and the center for the redoubtable Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt even consider "giving up all that glory and six-figure gilt to nursemaid a bunch of callow yodelers almost half a world away?
The Canadiens' Mario Trembley, a close friend, was so skeptical that he offered to bet assistant trainer Pierre Meilleur $100 that come fall Lemaire would again be wearing the old rouge, blanc et bleu. Meilleur was game, especially after checking the odds with Lemaire. "Double the bet to $200," Jacques told him, "and we'll split the take."
Last month, $100 and 1,000 new experiences richer, Lemaire was on the road with his Sierre team in Switzerland, headed for his first adventure in high-altitude hockey. Billed as a match amical—an exhibition game—it seemed more like a crash course in mountaineering. Turning off the main road, the team bus wound past the signs warning of falling crocks and deer crossings and ground up six steep miles of hairpin turns to the winter resort village of Villars. "Well," said Lemaire, surveying the rink perched on I the side of a mountain, "it's not the Montreal Forum, but it'll do."
According to Jean-Pierre Evittin, the cheery president of the host team, the Villars patinoire is in fact something of a monument. "It is the first ice hockey rink in all of Switzerland to have a roof," Evittin said proudly. "At present there are three rinks in the league that are, how do you say, topless. And yes, when it snows they have to stop the game every five minutes or so to clear off the ice, but it is good exercise, no?"
What about walls, he was asked, the kind that would protect the fans from the chill wind that was blowing through the open-sided structure? "Ah, most of our rinks are exposed to nature," Evittin said. "In the winter the temperature sometimes drops to 5 below, but you must understand that the fresh mountain air and the beautiful snow are what winter sports in Switzerland are all about."
Apparently, however, a fair share of the 250 spectators were gathered in an enclosed restaurant overlooking the rink, huddling over steaming pots of fondue and sipping coffee laced with apple brandy. "Isn't this incredible," said Don Shaw, a young Canadian who was hitchhiking through Europe. "When I heard that Jacques Lemaire was playing hockey in the mountains, I couldn't believe it. Forget the Matterhorn. This is one sight I just had to see. Look, it's so freezing you can see your breath."
Indeed, once the action began, the Sierre squad seemed about as stone cold as the north face of Mont Blanc. Lemaire, pushing his young charges into position and directing traffic with his stick, repeatedly tried to get something started, only to see his wingmen muff Jacques' quick, threadneedle passes. At one point in the first period, trailing 1-0 and scrambling, one Sierre player blindsided Lemaire and knocked him on his derrière.
"This is depressing," Lemaire sternly lectured his players at the break. "Don't you want to win?" The visiteurs came back strongly in the second period to go ahead 2-1. Then, after Villars scored a tying goal early in the final period, it was time for Lemaire to put on a one-man show. In dazzling succession, dancing by defenders and snapping off rapid-fire shots from seemingly impossible angles—zing! zip! zap!—he scored a hat trick to lead Sierre to a 6-3 victory.
Afterward, Lemaire charitably attributed the miscues of the first period to "poor visibility." He was referring to yet another remarkable aspect of the Villars aerie, the passing cloud banks that periodically engulfed the rink. Eerie as it was, the otherworldly effect was apt, for if the new scourge of Sierre could send one message back to his friends and fans in Montreal, it would be this: Jacques Lemaire has found a little piece of heaven in the Alps.
"I know a lot of people thought I was crazy coming over here," Lemaire said on the ride back to Sierre. "But after 12 years in the NHL, after winning eight Stanley Cups and putting a lot of pressure on myself, I was ready to quit. I just turned 34, and though I played my best hockey the past two seasons, it was getting hard on my system. I was tired of being tense most of the year."
Drawing on a stogie, he went on, "I always wanted to do something reckless, have an adventure, see how other people live, discover something new. Well, that time is now. I've always been interested in coaching, and when this opportunity presented itself, it seemed like the perfect thing."
Raised in the Montreal suburb of Ville LaSalle, Lemaire spent the better part of his youth slapping a steel puck against a driveway wall. The drill served him well when he joined the Canadiens in 1967 and established himself as one of the hardest shooters in the league. Though a consistently high scorer, especially in the playoffs, he was the kind of unassuming, all-round player who invariably wins the most-underrated honors.
A whippet among mastiffs, Lemaire has no taste for the NHL's roughhouse style of play, preferring finesse to fisticuffs, and it was this scientific approach that led him to an appreciation of the European game. "If the money's there," he said when first approached by a Swiss hockey promoter, "I'm ready."
The cash was there all right, gift-wrapped. In turning down the Canadiens' offer of $225,000 a year, Lemaire opted for a tax-free $75,000 annually plus a house, a car, a maid and a big intangible. Though he signed for three years, Lemaire says, "I can do what I want with my contract—quit, renegotiate, move to another team. That's called freedom."
Known as the most astute hockey mind on the Canadiens, if not in the NHL, Lemaire has nonetheless had to adjust to the Swiss system. Sierre plays in the national B league, which Lemaire equates with Canadian junior hockey. Each team is allowed to suit up one foreign professional, who becomes, in effect, a designated native after five seasons, thereby making way for another import to join the club. Though the Swiss players are all nominally amateurs, the level of play can be high. "If not for the roughness," says Lemaire, "Bern, the champions of the A league, could beat any of the six lowest teams in the NHL."
Since fighting results in an immediate suspension, the emphasis is on technique, which suits Lemaire just fine. He says, "They have training methods here that produce much better skaters. Let's face it, the NHL puts on a great show, but the Europeans play superior hockey. The Russians proved that when they clobbered the NHL All-Stars last winter. By adding some drills of my own, I hope to build a team combining the aggressiveness of the Canadians with the puck control and passing of the Russians."
The Sierre players do not always find it easy to comply with Lemaire's first commandment of hockey: "Play with spirit, have fun." They range in age from 16 to 33 and include such stars as Jaroslav Krupicka, a Czech professional who once played for the Los Angeles Sharks in the World Hockey Association. Trouble is, the Swiss players—students, shop clerks, factory workers—have already put in a full day's work when they appear for the evening practice sessions and have only so much left to give.
Lemaire works them hard, but worries, "I just don't know how far I can push them before they tell me to go to hell. I know none of the Canadiens would work that hard, so how much can I ask? It's easy to be tough, but how tough?"
Otherwise, for Jacques, his wife, Mychele, and their three children, Patrice, 10, Danyk, 7, and Magalie, 3, the living is easy in Sierre, a sun-kissed town of 8,600 amiable souls located midway in the Rhone Valley. The Lemaires live a few miles outside of town in Granges, a tiny village with a school, a church and three castles. Their home, a new five-bedroom chalet, is surrounded by apple orchards and the sweet scent of mountain flowers.
Jacques has his skis waxed and ready to go. Treated like a visiting potentate wherever he goes, he has developed a taste for a local cheese delicacy called raclette washed down with fendant, a dry sparkling white wine produced nearby. And the maid, exhibiting the Swiss passion for cleanliness, keeps vacuuming the garage, which accommodates the Mercedes Jacques has just purchased. "What more could a man ask for?" says the lord of the manor.
Well, there is the matter of a winning team. Recently, wearing a floppy leather hat autographed by his fellow Stanley Cup champions, Lemaire drove along the Rhone and reflected, "Sometimes I feel like a sculptor shaping a new creation. But so many things can go wrong. I've never played on a losing team, and if that starts happening, I'll have to get on the players' backs and they'll learn to hate me, I'm sure. But listen," he said, biting into an apple from his orchard, "we only play a 28-game schedule, and when I compare that to the 80-game grind in the NHL, well, I just smile."
Lemaire had even more to smile about when the season opened Oct. 6. Before a wildly enthusiastic hometown crowd of 4,500, he scored two goals and assisted on a third to lead Sierre to a 4-3 win over a tough Fribourg team. "The guys played a great, great game for all three periods," Jacques said. "I'm very proud. I wanted to be happy in my work and now I am. I'm telling you, I've never been more relaxed."
‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ë votre santè, Jacques Lemaire.