The fans’ attention in Joe Louis Arena turned to the gentleman in the press box. There was not a jumbotron to show his face and alert them. This started simply because the knowledgeable, passionate fans passed him a sign that said, “We love you,” and from there, the commotion began.
One head turned. Then another. People pointed, clapped and cheered. And then, one by one, they rose from their seats to honor Jacques Demers, the radio personality of the Quebec Nordiques.
Five months prior, he was the beloved coach of the Red Wings. But one day he got a phone call from Mike Ilitch, hopped into his car and drove to the owner’s house … and received unexpected news.
He was fired.
“I woke up this morning and I felt like the loneliest man in the world,” Demers told the Detroit Free Press. “Suddenly, after all this time, I don’t have a team to go to. No practice, no office …”
It was sad news for many Detroit fans, who felt the imprint upon their heart from so many of Demers’ touching scenes. Remember the roar in 1987? One year prior, the Wings were the laughingstock of the NHL. The Dead Wings. But Demers resuscitated the heartbeat inside the Winged Wheel, leading the franchise to the conference finals for the first time since 1966.
That was the night the Wings blanked the arch-rival Maple Leafs in Game 7 to cap a 3-1 series rally. And there was Demers, who ran onto the ice like a kid and threw a puck to his wife, Debbie, in the lower bowl.
“They called us the Dead Wings – we’re no longer the Dead Wings,” Demers said.
Statements like that endeared him to Wings fans. They loved his energy, his enthusiasm, the way he paced back and forth on the bench. The team assumed his style – blue-collar and pesky. Eight players had 100 penalty minutes or more in 1986-87. The next year, he also got into the action and engaged in a classic confrontation between the benches with Minnesota North Stars coach Herb Brooks (which, we should note, makes the Scotty Bowman-Marc Crawford war of words in 1997 look like two mini-mites arguing, cage-to-cage.)
Demers never backed down from a challenge. It was pumped into his veins early in his youth. His father was abusive – verbally and physically – to both him and his mother. The anxiety kept him awake at night, causing him to be out of school frequently. When he did attend classes, he was too tired to absorb any details.
Thus, in November of 2005, at the age of 61, Demers revealed he was illiterate. It’s amazing he was a successful coach for 14 seasons in the NHL. Many wondered: How was he able to perform reading and writing duties? He often said he forgot his glasses, or said his English-to-French translation was the issue. His secretaries or media relations personnel handled his clerical work.
“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 to Detroitredwings.com in 2012. “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 was like a father to his players. He nearly cried when talking to reporters about the infamous Goose Loonies incident in the 1988 postseason. That was the night eight Red Wings decided to drink at an Edmonton bar on the eve of Game 5 of the Campbell Conference Finals. Bob Probert and Darren Veitch were found drunk by an assistant coach. Petr Klima – a constant nuisance during Demers’ tenure – was drinking too.
“It’s my biggest disappointment since coming to Detroit,” Demers said at the time to the Free Press. “It hurt me more than anything.”
It hurt because he cared so much. There was the time he nervously twitched in his plane seat en route to Toronto for a “slashing” hearing between Rick Zombo and the NHL. Zombo knew he would lose, yet Demers gave it everything he had, waving his fists, begging to sway the thoughts of a suspension.
“Jacques went to bat for everyone,” Zombo told the Free Press.
Yet, the Wings didn’t go to bat for him in the summer of 1990. Ilitch fired him despite the fact that Demers’ credentials included coach of the year awards in 1987 and 1988. (To this day, he’s still the only coach in NHL history to win the Jack Adams Award in back-to-back seasons.)
Ilitch believed the team was slipping in the wrong direction. In 1989, the first-place Wings lost in six games to fourth-place Chicago in a series that concluded with a 7-1 shellacking at Chicago Stadium. Exit, first round.
“Chicago reminded me a little bit of us two years ago,” Adam Oates told the Free Press.
The next spring, they missed the playoffs altogether. Many believed Demers’ message wore thin. One player quipped that Demers traded for his “buddy” by acquiring aging Bernie Federko from St. Louis.
Rumors swirled that Wings players turned on him, including Steve Yzerman, who never called Demers after he was fired.
“I didn’t make this decision,” a 25-year-old Yzerman said to Mitch Albom in August of 1990, one month after Demers’ firing. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I think people are being blinded by love here. They’re forgetting that we were a last-place hockey team.”
Ilitch believed the motivational, uplifting style no longer meshed between Demers and his players. A few unnamed players even told the owner those very words. Shame on them for the short memory. What about those magical runs in ’87 and ’88? Shouldn’t that have counted?
Heck, it was the first time Demers was ever fired from a job. When he was a young man, he had worked at a grocery store to support his family. He drove a Coke truck. He battled through his literacy disability, yet still managed to succeed in the WHA and AHL prior to making the NHL, and it all stemmed from those sleepless nights as a kid.
“I never was made important by my dad,” Demers said in an interview with the Red Wings website in 2012. “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.”
Demers really deserved a better fate in Detroit. It certainly did not improve with his replacement, Bryan Murray, who never made it past the second round during his three seasons on the Wings’ bench.
Red Wings fans admired and loved Demers. And it showed during that special moment on Dec. 13, 1990, as he stood and waved from the press box as a radio guy for the Quebec Nordiques. He was a far distance from the bench where he used to anxiously chew gum, but it was still close enough to share his feelings for Wings fans.
“I brought my heart here,” Demers said. “I brought my heart here.”