MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Wild are getting ready to say goodbye to the only coach they've ever known.
Jacques Lemaire is stepping down after eight seasons behind the bench. He made the announcement after a 6-3 victory over Columbus in the season finale on Saturday night.
The Wild have scheduled a news conference for Monday morning to make the news official and discuss plans for the future of the position.
"I think it's time for the players to get a new coach and myself to look for other stuff," Lemaire told writers from the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the St. Paul Pioneer Press after the season finale at Columbus. "I always said there'll be a time. There comes a time that you know it's the right time to go, and I know this. I had a great time, man. I had eight great years."
General manager Doug Risebrough hired his former Montreal teammate and good buddy Lemaire to preside over the expansion team, which began play in 2000. Lemaire used his superior strategic sense and defensive acumen to lead the team to the Western Conference finals in 2003 and to a Northwest Division title last season.
Lemaire was 291-256-107 with the Wild, including winning records in his last six seasons. Despite several significant injuries to Marian Gaborik, Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the Wild barely missed the playoffs this season.
"He set the bar really high for all of us," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said. "His ability to take a mid-pack team and have them compete every day at a high level, to me, is more impressive than taking a good team and making it great.
"If you gave him a top team, he'd win all the time. To me, he's one of the best coaches in the league, ever."
The headstrong coach clashed with players at times during this frustrating season, but made it clear that he is not retiring. He still sees a place for himself in hockey, whether it is as a coach or in a front office role.
"It's exciting. It's an exciting job," he said. "I was behind the bench just before the game there, and I felt I was getting really tight because it's something I've done for 15 years and I like it and I have to go.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I want to stay in the game, but I don't know what I'm going to do."
It would be difficult to imagine the NHL without Lemaire, who has had one of the most successful careers as both a player and a coach as anyone associated with the league. He has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player, coach and executive and has a career coaching record of 538-415-176 in 14 seasons with Montreal, New Jersey and Minnesota.
One of the great characters in the league, Lemaire spent much of his time in Minnesota with a twinkle in his eye and wry responses to questions from the media that often elicited belly laughs that filled the press room.
But this was one of the most trying years of Lemaire's coaching career. Gaborik missed 65 games with a nagging hip injury, while Burns and Bouchard have missed big chunks of time with head injuries.
He vented his frustrations at times with an inconsistent team that was overmatched in offensive firepower nearly every time it hit the ice this season. And as usual, there were personality conflicts between a demanding coach and players 30 or 40 years younger who came up through the ranks in a different era.
"There's not one guy I didn't have friction with, except maybe (veteran forward Andrew Brunette). We were always on the same page," Lemaire said. "But the other guys, there's always something. And sometimes when you like a guy it's worse, because you want him to grow, and then you're on his (butt)."
So Lemaire decided it was time for him to go. And Gaborik, who is an unrestricted free agent and was brilliant in his 11-game return from hip surgery, is likely to follow Lemaire out the door.
Lemaire will likely get plenty of phone calls in the off-season to return to the bench, possibly even from the Canadiens.
"I won't start to mention any teams because I'm still under contract in a way," Lemaire said. "But I'll be looking for a job. I don't know what type. But I'll be looking."