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Other hockey greats among Canadians confessing illiteracy to Jacques Demers

NHL.com @NHL

VANCOUVER - Two hockey hall-of-famers, the owner of a Canadian Tire store and a government employee are among the people who've confessed to hockey legend Jacques Demers that they, like him, are illiterate.

Since coming forward with the revelation that he struggles with basic reading and writing in a biography published two years ago, Demers has criss-crossed Canada and the U.S. speaking out about the issue.

Once he was hockey's golden boy, leading the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cup victory in 1993 and twice named coach of the year.

He's since become a poster boy for literacy. He has headlined fundraisers and campaigns like Literacy Now in conjunction with the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games legacy program, the reason he was in Vancouver on Thursday.

It's not the cause he set out to bring attention to and the reaction has been overwhelming.

His biography, Jacques Demers en Toutes Lettres, written by reporter Mario LeClerc, has sold 87,000 copies in Quebec alone, and an English translation has yet to hit the shelves.

Demers, in a candid and animated interview with The Canadian Press, said he set out to write the book to bring attention to battered women; his father was a violent alcoholic who beat his mother.

His illiteracy was part of the story - he says his upbringing meant he was too distracted to cope in school. But the revelation was the one that grabbed everyone's attention.

He was terrified that the response to the book would be that people felt he'd lied to them for the decades he hid his secret. If he'd told anyone sooner, he said, there was no way he'd have kept his job.

But only overwhelming support followed.

"It's amazing it's led people to come forward, but it's also we're all scared to express ourselves because if we do, we're all scared of the backlash," he said.

"I was a truck driver, I travelled in the truck, delivering. I didn't want to go back to that, that's the only thing I knew because of no schooling."

Demers, 63, said even he was surprised to learn that estimates peg one in five Quebecers as being illiterate and that in British Columbia, 40 per cent of adults live with low literacy skills.

But it was the stories of other successful, well-respected people like him living with illiteracy that were the most surprising.

After one speaking engagement, a man who owned a Canadian Tire store came up and said he too shared Demers' secret.

During a call-in show, a man who called himself Andre and said he worked in the government confessed he couldn't read or write either.

While keeping their names confidential, Demers said two hockey colleagues also came to him after reading his book.

"There's two people in the National Hockey League that are hall-of-famers that are illiterate," Demers said. "How many do you think there is?"

Demers makes no apologies for his level of education and doesn't think being a better reader or writer would have helped him in hockey. His success there, he says, was due to his passion and personality.

But he knows the success he has managed to achieve without literacy skills can send a dangerous message to younger people about the importance of education.

"Oh I don't have to go to school, write or read, look at Jacques Demers, look he became an NHL coach, a lot of people know him," Demers said kids may say.

"No," he answers them.

"This is not what life is all about."

For his three daughters and son, Demers stressed the value of education, all while hiding his secret from them and his own priest.

It didn't even spill out to his wife Debra until 1984.

Back then, Demers said, he hired people to help with the technical aspects of coaching and relied on secretaries and assistants to keep up with his correspondence.

He developed two sides, he said, one keeping a big secret and the other the person he presented to the world.

"My personality is such I'm always kind of happy, my personality is I'm not moody," he said.

"People kind of got to like me so they didn't look for the bad side."

If he had to do it all over again, he said, he doesn't think he could have kept the secret this long.

E-mail has become too pervasive in business.

"It's frustrating, frustrating not to be able to send an e-mail because that's what life is all about today," he said.

"Then I may not have survived as a coach ... because I would have got caught."

Today, Demers said, he can read sports stories in the newspaper, because the slang of hockey is his own language. Other things take longer and require more focus and quiet around him.

"My story is one of many," he said.

"I never want to look at it as it's me me me, it's not about me. I'm very fortunate I've come out of it but a lot of people don't make it, or struggle through their whole life."

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