When Jacques Demers lifted the Stanley Cup as coach of the victorious Montreal Canadiens in 1993, the first person he thought of was his mother.
He had kept his promise. He was a good, successful citizen. That had been Mignonne Demers’ final wish for her oldest child.
The second person Demers thought of was his father.
“The night we won the Stanley Cup, it was obviously a reminder to me that hopefully that one night, he could be proud of me,” Demers recalled. “I knew that my mom was. But I was hoping that that one night, if he did see me, that he would be proud of me.”
Demers kept his thoughts to himself. He had carried the burden of his past for years and still had many more to go. Only after his career in the NHL was over would his story shock the world.
Long before he was an NHL coach, Demers grew-up in a household with an alcoholic and abusive father. The oldest of four children, Demers received the brunt of his father’s physical and verbal abuse that scarred him for years.
“When you have a violent father who beats up on your mom and beats up on the son, you don’t sleep at night, you suffer from anxiety,” Demers explained. “It was a very, very difficult childhood. I was out of school more than in school.”
School wasn’t a priority. At 12 years old, Demers was in charge of many household chores, helped with his apartment complex’s janitorial services to receive free rent and took care of his sick mother. But if he brought home a bad report card, there were equally bad repercussions.
“I was terribly afraid,” Demers said. “That’s one of the reasons I suffered from anxiety … not sleeping at night then going to school and being so tired that I couldn’t pick up anything in school. You couldn’t say anything. You just kept quiet and you kept it to yourself. That was very difficult but I never complained.”
Even when his father told him he was dumb and would never amount to anything, Demers didn’t complain. But the physical and psychological abuse took a toll on his education. He wasn’t learning.
Demers’ sisters helped him with his schoolwork, but family came before his education. He dropped out of school in eighth grade to work at a grocery store that paid him with food. The 15-year-old was supporting his family before he learned to read or write.
“It’s not that I wanted to drop out of school, I wasn’t learning anything,” Demers said. “I wasn’t going anywhere so I went to help support. My dad would lose all of his jobs because he wouldn’t report to work most of the time. At the time, it was just something I felt I had to do.”
Demers’ hero died of cancer soon after he quit school. His mother’s last wish was for Demers to be successful, and he was determined to fulfill it.
“When you go through a lot of adversity, it will either break you or make you stronger,” Demers said. “I think in some cases it made me stronger because I always said I did not want to be like my dad. I wanted to honor my mom that I lost when I was 17. I promised her that I was going to do something good with my life.”
He never dreamed that his promise would be so rewarding. Growing up in Montreal, Demers was born and raised a hockey and Canadiens fan. He loved the passion and physicality of the game, but knew he wasn’t good enough to play professionally. The only way Demers could get heavily involved with the sport was through coaching.
He was perfectly fine with that path. Coaching became his passion. Coaching in the NHL became his ultimate dream. And he was determined to do anything to achieve that dream, even if it meant hiding his illiteracy.
Demers hid his secret well. As he rose through the ranks of minor leagues, junior leagues, the WHA and the NHL, Demers found ways to get by despite his reading and writing handicap.
Leadership, communication and passion became his most effective coaching tools. Any responsibilities that required reading or writing were handed to secretaries or the public relations department. He lost his glasses a lot. When he was in the U.S., the French-English language barrier was the problem. When he was in Canada, he said he had been in the States too long and couldn’t remember his French.
Only one person knew Demers’ secret: his wife Debbie. Early in their relationship, Debbie simply told Demers that she wouldn’t pay the bills because she wasn’t his secretary. Demers couldn’t pay them either, but for different reasons. For the first time in his life, Demers broke down and told someone about his inability to read and write.
“There’s a timing for everything and I just felt that I had to trust her,” Demers said. “I had to tell someone eventually because it’s a strong burden to carry all the time. I told her that I had difficulty to write and read and I trusted her that she wouldn’t say anything, she wouldn’t make fun of me, she would understand my point of view.”
Debbie never laughed at Demers’ handicap. She was sympathetic to his needs and helped him learn to read and write. His wife laid the base, but Demers still had a long way to go.
All odds were stacked against Demers as he chased his dream of coaching in the NHL. He didn’t care. He wasn’t about to break his promise.
“That survival mode that I was in when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, helped me become a coach in the NHL because coaching in the NHL is survival,” Demers said. “I know what it is to survive and I understood from the beginning that it’s all about winning and I pride myself in trying to win as many games as possible.”
He won a few. It was Demers’ success in the WHA and NHL that landed him as the head coach of the worst team in the NHL: the “Dead Wings.” Demers wasn’t intimidated. He knew how the players, fans and organization felt.
“They were the laughing stock in the NHL, as I was the laughing stock in school where kids made fun of me because we were so poor,” Demers said. “That was a huge challenge, the Detroit Red Wings. When I was young I always challenged myself to get out of a bad situation and I think that really helped me.”
Demers breathed life back into the Red Wings through his passion, emotion and unconventional coaching style. He wanted to be more than a coach. He wanted to be the father figure to his young players that he never had in his life. Demers didn’t care if his coaching style was different. Nothing was more important than being himself.
“I think they saw that I was more of a player-coach than someone that would kick butt all the time,” Demers explained. “I never was made important by my dad so I made them feel important as players, made them feel important as human beings and certainly more important is what made them play to a level where even sometimes they didn’t think they were as good as they were.”
The Red Wings flourished under Demers’ caring and emotional personality.
“That was Jacques,” Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said of his former coach. “It came from his heart and I think that’s where the players wanted to play for him, they knew that he cared that much, it came from his heart and when you have a person who cares that much you want to make sure they succeed.”
Everyone succeeded. Demers became the first Red Wings’ coach to reach the third round of the playoffs since the league’s expansion. He led Detroit to the playoffs three years in a row, becoming the only coach to win two consecutive Jack Adams Awards as the NHL Coach of the Year.
Detroit had just been another challenge.
“I don’t back down from challenges, I never back down,” Demers said. “To not back down, you have to have the help of people. I can’t do it all by myself and I certainly did not do it all by myself. I know I was the head coach and the head coach is supposed to be the leader but I had really good leaders that I was surrounded by, too.”
Demers was also surrounded by people he didn’t dare trust with his secret. One mistake could cost him a career and lifestyle in professional sports.
He was scared, but that fear wasn’t great enough to quit.
After four seasons in Detroit, Demers was named the head coach of the Canadiens. His first season couldn’t have gone better, as he won the Stanley Cup in his hometown, with his childhood team. Montreal was his father’s favorite team, too.
Demers didn’t know if his father was proud, but he knew he had achieved and surpassed his dream.
“I dreamt about eventually becoming a coach and that was just an unbelievable dream that I was able to accomplish that,” Demers said. “To be able to achieve, you have to believe in yourself, you have to work very hard at it, you have obstacles you have to surmount, but all of the obstacles when I was young helped me when I got older. No obstacle was going to stop me from achieving my goal.”
There was one obstacle he had yet to face, and he did 30 years after taking his first coaching job.
On Nov. 2, 2005, Demers released his book written by Mario Leclerc, “Jacques Demers: En Toutes Lettres,” which roughly translates to “All Spelled Out.” Demers knew his NHL career was over and wanted to use his story to help others going through adversity.
“There’s really a problem of literacy in Canada and in the province of Quebec 42 percent,” Demers said. “That means if you have a 100 people in the room, 42 people have the same problem I had. So it’s a major problem in our society and hopefully that book was a help for a lot of people to come out and express their feelings.”
It certainly helped Demers express his feelings. He felt a little embarrassed revealing his illiteracy, but mostly relief. After suffering for years, he was finally able to unload his burden, help others and learn to read and write.
“It wasn’t hard for me to learn,” Demers said. “I was at peace with myself. I didn’t have the torment of my dad anymore. I didn’t have anxiety in seeing all kind of violence so I could pick it up a lot easier when I was away from all that trouble that I was in when I was a younger guy.”
It also helped his former players understand why Demers had been such a caring player’s coach.
“He had to find a different button to push,” Nill said of Demers’ enthusiasm. “Everybody has assets and his assets weren’t literacy, and that hindered him so he found other ways to find strength and did a great job of it.”
His success also caught the eye of the Canadian government. Soon after his book was published, Demers was appointed a Senator. It was a position he never thought he would hold, but found it was just another way he could help illiterate children and battered mothers, much like his own.
“It’s like I’m following my mother’s guide, what she went through and what other women go through and other children,” Demers said. “Would I be able to accomplish everything I surmount to be? I doubt it, there’s too much. I just feel very special that I’m able to do that and be very sincere about it.”
There’s no one more sincere about these issues than Demers. It’s a life that he lived and suffered through, but overcame to become a successful coach and person. Demers has come a long way from the boy who put his earnings on his family’s table.
“I consider myself very, very fortunate that I was able to do things that many people when I was young didn’t think I could accomplish,” he said. “I promised my mom I would do something with my life. I forgave my father for what he did to me and wanted to prove to him that even though the insults came from him, I wanted to do something good with my life.”
He’s made his point perfectly clear.