Lemaire has a spring in his step

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

Jacques Lemaire looks down the long carpeted hallway in the bowels of the Xcel Energy Centre, looks down at his skates, and then it hits him, just like it would hit a mischievous kid.

And he starts skating. Right down the middle of that poor stretch of carpet. The 61-year-old legs are churning, the stick and gloves are pumping, and he's grinning like a 12-year old as he checks over his shoulder to see if everyone else in the hallway thinks this is as funny as he does.

FEELING LOOSE

With the playoffs just days away, a time of the season when most coaches look like they're about to pass a kidney stone, Lemaire couldn't be loving life, and his lot in it, any more than he is right now.

"Yeah," said the Minnesota Wild head coach, the ever-present smile of his in full beam. "It's good. It's different than the season."

The regular season is about working, teaching, scolding and repetition; the playoffs are one long adrenaline rush that still, after 12 years as a player, 13 more as a coach and 11 Stanley Cups, still gets him excited enough to skate down a carpeted hallway.

Like Lemaire himself, springtime in the NHL never gets old.

"It doesn't," he said. "You can get (the rush) at different times during the season, when you get big games, you get that excitement. Now it's every night. You have to be at your best. Sixteen teams, one parade."

The new NHL, with its crackdown on obstruction and emphasis on offence, was going to weed out dinosaurs like Lemaire, vilified earlier in his coaching career for perfecting a defensive system that was as tough to penetrate as it was to watch.

Well, turns out the dinosaur is really one of hockey's greatest chameleons.

Give him slugs and castoffs and he'll devise a game plan to make them competitive. Give him elite level talent, change the way the game is officiated, take out the red line ... and he'll give you a fast, 100-point club with a scary transition game that nobody wants to meet in the first round.

GODFATHER OF THE TRAP

Apparently there's more to the Godfather of the trap than we realized.

"It only took 15 years for people to understand," he chuckles.

"That's OK, I don't have a problem with that."

He knows what he's doing, always has, and spends zero time worrying about his critics.

"They say we play a more offensive style this year, but listen to this," he said, leaning in to make sure that you are. "Our goals against average is even LOWER than last year, when we were playing all the defence."

And he bursts out laughing. He loves it. The fox is still one step ahead of the hounds.

"He's a very versatile coach who understands all the different ways you can play the game," said GM Doug Risebrough, who signed Lemaire to a three-year extension that takes him into 2010. He's constantly thinking about teaching and how to make players better, and he still has a great passion for the game."

Though this season, when Marian Gaborik was hurt and the Wild lost 14 road games in a row, it was one of the few times in his career when the game wasn't any fun.

"That kicked me in the gut, it was tough," said Lemaire.

"I started to think too much at that time. Things like, do I really need this?"

The answer was always yes. At his age, he wouldn't be doing it if he didn't love it. Even during the early expansion years, with nothing to work with but mongrels and kids, he loved it.

"It was more fun than it was hard at the start," he said. "But it got tougher the last couple of years. The expectations were higher, but we had to wait on our young guys to turn into good players, otherwise we couldn't get there."

They did, of course. They usually do under Lemaire.

"He's a tremendous teacher," said Brian Rolston, who won a Cup with Lemaire in New Jersey. "Players who came up under Jacques, like Koivu, Gaborik, Burns, and Bouchard, they're going to realize down the road how lucky they were to have him."


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