NEWARK, N.J. — The energy is gone, so Jacques Lemaire is walking away from coaching.
Just four days after the New Jersey Devils were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the third straight year, the 64-year-old Lemaire made the surprising announcement Monday that he is retiring as a coach.
“It’s tough to leave what you like, but it’s a decision that I made,” he said.
Lemaire said he thought about retiring several times this season and that the loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games had nothing to do with his decision. He relayed it to Devils president Lou Lamoriello over the past 24 hours.
“It’s not the team, it is not the result or the lack of result we had in the playoffs,” a glassy-eyed Lemaire said. “It’s not that at all. It’s the end of the line. I’ll be 65. It’s just time.”
Lemaire had a hard time telling the coaching staff he was leaving and he was only able to get a few words out to the players before he could not go on. Lamoriello had to step in and relay the news.
“It was a difficult thing because Jacques is a players’ coach,” Lamoriello said.
Lamoriello said Lemaire, who made the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984 for his playing career, will stay with the Devils in a role yet to be determined.
“I didn’t see that coming,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “I think Jacques has a lot of passion for the game and he showed it all throughout the year and the playoffs, and I think that drive was there. It seems to be there, but he knows it better than anybody and you have to accept what he wants to do.”
Lamoriello said he has not thought about a replacement.
Among those who considered potential replacements are John MacLean, the coach of the Devils’ top farm team (Lowell of the AHL), and Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, who was an assistant this season.
Making the decision so surprising was Lamoriello having said Friday he expected Lemaire back next season. However, the Devils executive admitted he was not totally caught off guard by the decision.
Lemaire had told him after accepting the job in July that he would re-evaluate how he felt after the first season.
“It’s a game I have been in a long time,” said Lemaire, who has been a part of 11 Stanley Cup champions as either a player, coach or executive. “I really have a thing for it and I still do. There is no doubt if I had the energy I would keep going because I love it.’
Whoever gets the job will be the Devils’ third head coach in as many years.
“It’s tough,” left wing Zach Parise said. “It seems like the same story every summer. I don’t know what to think about it.”
Lemaire had replaced Brent Sutter, who resigned after two seasons last year to be closer to his home in western Canada. Sutter eventually became coach of the Calgary Flames.
Lamoriello then turned to Lemaire, who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995. He had stepped down as Minnesota Wild coach after eight seasons last season, but his former boss persuaded him to come to New Jersey for a second stint as coach.
Lemaire coached 16 seasons in the NHL with Montreal, New Jersey and Minnesota, posting a 588-441 won-lost record. His teams also played 124 ties and lost 60 games in overtime or shootouts.
He won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach in 1994 and 2003. This past winter, he was an assistant on Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the Vancouver Olympics.
The Devils won the Atlantic Division this past season with a 48-27-7 record, making them the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they were clearly outplayed in the playoffs by the seventh-seeded Flyers, who beat them nine of 11 games this season.
“The season went really well, I could have been a lot more tired,” Lemaire quipped.
“It went really well,” he added. “I know it’s disappointing. You look at the team and always feel: ‘Hey, we got a chance here. We got a chance to do something.’ Especially I felt I was getting toward retirement one day, it would have been nice to do something else in the playoffs. That’s my only disappointment.”