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Stanley Cup FINALS : Tough Life, Tough Coach : Demers Puts a Poor Childhood Behind Him as His Dream Comes True With Canadiens

June 05, 1993|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTREAL — Jacques Demers knows how to laugh. Even at himself.

The Montreal Canadiens' coach, a bilingual French-Canadian who sometimes struggles with his English, still chuckles at the pep talk he once gave the Detroit Red Wings.

With the club struggling, Demers became a Canadian Knute Rockne in the locker room, pulling out every emotional cliche he could remember.

"This next period is going to separate the men from the boys," he concluded.

Pause.

"OK, now let's go, boys."

Looking at Demers now, coaching the most storied team in all of hockey in his native city and reaching the Stanley Cup finals

in his first season, it's logical to figure life must be all laughs for this 48-year-old coach.

But scratch below the surface and there are plenty of tears.

Demers grew up in poverty. And tragedy.

When he was 18, his mother died of leukemia. When Demers was 21, his father died of a heart attack in the car Jacques was driving to his sister's wedding.

"All of it shaped me," Demers told the Montreal Gazette. "My parents sort of died in my arms. . . . It makes you what you are."

So did a poor childhood--shoveling coal, sweeping floors and trying to exist in a household where his father, an alcoholic, struggled for his sanity before dying of the ravages of his addiction at age 49.

Demers played junior hockey as a kid, but he always had other things on his mind.

Such as surviving.

By 13, he was already the superintendent of an apartment building, earning $30 a month to supplement the income of his father, a kosher butcher.

It all changed when Demers' father died. A week later, a truck picked up the furniture, all rented, from the Demers household.

Jacques became the head of the household. But it was merely a title. He already had the job to a large degree. He had quit school after the eighth grade and went to work at 16 as a driver on a soft-drink truck.

It is certainly not a period of his life of which he's ashamed. But it is a period he's ready to put behind him.

When Demers was asked about his truck-driving days earlier this week at a news conference to open the Stanley Cup finals, he stickhandled the conversation back to hockey.

His poverty-ridden past has been written into the ground, he told reporters. Enough already.

Somehow, despite all his outside jobs, the young Demers found time for hockey. He played in a senior league, coached a junior team and eventually landed a job as an assistant with the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Assn.

Goodby truck, hello Zamboni.

The road back home has been long and winding. He coached the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA (where one of his players was Barry Melrose), had two seasons as coach of the Quebec Nordiques, two with the club's minor league affiliate, Fredericton, and then back to the NHL where he spent three seasons as head coach of the St. Louis Blues and four with the Detroit Red Wings.

Demers thought it was all over after the Red Wings fired him in 1990. He took a job as a broadcaster with the Nordiques and finally accepted that his move from the bench to the booth might be permanent.

Before this season, he told a reporter he was ready to put his dreams of coaching again behind him.

One week later, he got the Montreal offer.

Demers acknowledges that he left Detroit with a bad taste in his mouth, that the idea of vindication hung in his mind.

"It hurt," he said of his firing. "It took me a year to get Detroit out of my system. All men have pride. It was good to come back and prove to people who doubted you that you can coach in this league."

Perhaps as much as success, Demers craves respect. It seems very important to him. It's a word that comes up often in his conversations, in both languages.

When the Kings met the Toronto Maple Leafs in their last series, the two coaches--Melrose and Pat Burns--wound up in an unseemly name-calling contest, Burns criticizing Melrose for his haircut and Melrose ripping Burns for his weight.

"We (he and Melrose) have mutual respect for each other," Demers said. "There will be no problems like that."

But then Demers, who has been known to overindulge at the table, added: "He'd better leave my stomach alone."

That Melrose has done. But he couldn't quite leave his old mentor alone altogether.

Not after Game 2 Thursday night.

Not after Demers pulled a victory out of his sleeve by playing his ace with 1:45 to play in regulation.

Demers, knowing full well he was in the right, called for a measurement of the curvature of defenseman Marty McSorley's stick. It proved to be illegal by league standards.

The Canadiens got a power play, a goal and, eventually, a victory out of Demers' move.

Melrose said that he wouldn't have stooped to such a device.

Though he wouldn't say it, that had to have hurt Demers, who prides himself on being a student of the game.

To look at Demers, one might guess he is a teacher, rather than a student. Or perhaps a librarian. There is a certain dignity about him, and he carries that into the locker room.

"I'm not buddies with my players," he said. "I don't associate with them away from here. I don't have a beer with them.

"I communicate with them. That's the '90s. The players make a lot of money. You have to understand their needs. Not just their financial needs, but their emotional needs. You don't punish them in the '90s. You have to explain to them why or why not you are doing something."

That message always seems to get across, regardless of the choice of words.

With Demers and the English language, you never know.

Everybody, it seems, has a story, lovingly told, about the son of the butcher butchering the language.

In Detroit, they talk about the time Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson sent Demers a congratulatory message.

"Isn't that nice?" Demers said. "He doesn't know me from Adams."

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