Jacques Demers’ biography is a portrait of hurt, determination and courage, of a man who lived in fear of his “secret” being discovered.

Jacques Demers earned an elite position in professional hockey in 1993 – he coached a team to a Stanley Cup victory. In 1987 and then again in 1988, he won the Jack Adams ‘Coach of the Year’ Award while coaching the Detroit Red Wings. In November of 2006, now a hockey analyst for Reseau des Sports, Demers stunned the hockey world – and indeed the broader public, with his admission that he was functionally illiterate. He had made these outstanding accomplishments while unable to read or write.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacques Demers to discuss how he lived with his “handicap”, and the forthcoming May release of the English version of his biography written by Mario Leclerc of Le Journal de Montreal.

The original French-language version; Jacques Demers – En Toutes Lettres (Jacques Demers From A to Z) was released in November of 2005. At the time of our interview, the book had already sold an astounding 80,000 copies, with the English version still to come!

Over 300 friends, family members and media people attended the Bell Centre press conference last November. Many family members, including grandchildren, had only learned of Jacques’ situation the day before the press conference.

Author Mario Leclerc had inadvertently discovered the secret while Demers was coaching The Canadiens. Jacques swore Leclerc to secrecy with the admonition, “I’ll lose my job and the players will laugh at me”.

Jacques Demers lived a hard childhood – in fact his childhood was stolen. His father was a violent man, who unfortunately could not overcome his alcoholism. He beat his wife and young Jacques. “He told me that I was dumb – that I would never amount to anything. This had a huge effect on me. I had so much anxiety that I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate in school.” Jacques recounts in the book how he asked his sisters to help him with his school work.

In his book, he tells a story to illustrate his fear of his father. The elder Demers, displeased with Jacques, told him to go home and wait for him. Jacques went home and sat – waiting for his father. He did not dare move from the chair; afraid that his father might arrive while he was away from the chair. He wet his pants – too afraid to go down the hall to the bathroom. How does a young boy live with this and grow up to become a successful coach in the world’s most elite hockey league?

“I wanted my dad to love me – wanted his respect”. Unfortunately it never came. “My Mom loved me. She died of cancer when I was sixteen. She’s my angel. She’s been with me ever since – protecting me. I feel her presence every day.”

Four years later, driving his father home from his sister’s wedding, Jacques’ father lurched forward; hitting his head on the dash then leaned over towards Jacques and died. “I cried. Can you believe that? After all that he had done – I cried. I just wanted my father to love me.”

“Now I was alone. I was 20 years old and alone. I had to survive.”

With poor grades, Jacques had dropped out of school in grade 8. Eventually, he got a job driving a truck for Coca Cola. “My former brother-in-law, Wilson Church, was involved in Junior B hockey, and they needed some coaches.”

The late Claude Beauchamp, the legendary sports writer for Le Journal de Montreal noticed Jacques’ effectiveness as a coach, and brought him to the attention of Marcel Pronovost. The World Hockey Association was starting up, and Jacques moved into coaching at a professional level with the Indianapolis Racers in 1975. He went onto to serve as Head Coach for the Cincinnati Stingers and the Quebec Nordiques when that team was still part of the WHA. After two years in the AHL with the Fredericton Express, Jacques came to the NHL as Head Coach for the St. Louis Blues, the Detroit Red Wings, the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.

In 1986/87 and again in 1987/88, Jacques won the prestigious Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year. This honour is voted by hockey journalists for coaches who have the most improved team. Jacques took the Detroit Red Wings from last place to the playoffs in the 1986/87 season. The following season, he continued the team’s improvement. He won the Jack Adams an unprecedented two consecutive times. “We were so bad that it was possible for me to win twice in a row! My players gave me that award. They’re the ones who reacted positively to my coaching. They’re the ones who believed in themselves, and went out every night and played their hearts out”

“I always believed in being supportive of my players – perhaps because it was something I didn’t receive from my father. I treated them with respect and listened to them, paying attention to their needs. And it wasn’t always just about hockey. I was available to them for advice and to listen for off-ice issues as well. Doug Gilmore, Steve Yzerman, and Vincent Lecalvalier are some of the players I helped to become better men – in addition to being great hockey players.”

The other great moment came in his first year as coach for the Montreal Canadiens, when he took the team to the finals and they won the Stanley Cup.

Jacques came to share his secret with his wife Debbie. Upon returning from a road trip, Jacques noticed that there were unpaid bills, and brought it to Debbie’s attention. A “discussion” ensued, during which Debbie said that she wasn’t his secretary, and that he could pay his own bills. Jacques was terrified. “I was afraid that if I told her, she’d leave me”. Jacques took Debbie into his confidence, and she remained the only person who knew for over twenty years.
In 1998, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning fired just about everyone except for Coach Demers. Instead, Jacques was promoted to the dual role of Coach and General Manager. While accepting congratulations and best wishes, the beaming Jacques Demers was worried. “I thought that this was it” he recounts. “That was the closest I ever came to being caught. I knew that if I said no to Art, he probably would have fired me to. If people found out that I was illiterate, I would have been kicked out of the league.”

To cover himself, Jacques hired Cliff Fletcher and Jay Feaster to look after the contracts. “I never really was the GM. I hired Cliff and Jay because I knew that I couldn’t do that”.

Even after he left coaching and became an analyst for Reseau des Sports television broadcasts for the Montreal Canadiens, the anxiety and frustration continued. Debbie suggested that he consult a psychiatrist, a suggestion that Jacques resisted. Finally, he agreed. “I snuck in the back door. I was still ashamed. I was worried that someone would see me.” The therapy helped Jacques to overcome his anxiety, and to calm down. He finally realized that the shame he had always felt wasn’t his to bear – that he wasn’t “dumb”.

He worked with Mario Leclerc for three years to create a 584 page book that he cannot yet read. He called his children and told them the truth. They were shocked, but “they said they were proud of me.”

Mitch Albom, the award winning author of Tuesdays With Morrie was a young sportswriter with The Detroit Free Press (where he is now an award winning sports columnist) when Jacques was the Head Coach of the Red Wings. He and Jacques have stayed in touch, and are still close friends. “Mitch is a very special man. I love him dearly. I trust him”, were Jacques words in our interview.

In a December annual year-end editorial feature titled Dreams Deferred, Albom wrote: “Can you imagine going 60 years pretending you can read and write? Can you imagine standing in the national spotlight, clinging to secrets even your family doesn’t share?”

In that December interview with his friend, Jacques confides; “My goal is, within a year, to be able to write my first letters – to all the people that helped me without realizing it”, he said. “I call them my angels.”

Here we have the story of a man with a terrifying secret – one that could jeopardize his career, and his family life. It’s said that heroes are people who are afraid, but overcome their fear and take action – even while they are still afraid. Jacques Demers is too modest to think himself a hero; but the fact is that he is helping many people struggling with the same problems of illiteracy. “I was speaking in Pointe-Claire recently, and a gentleman working in an organization to help illiterate people said that their calls had gone up by 300% since I went public.”

Jacques says, “I’ve been told that people write books to get even, or to make a lot of money.” “In my case, I hope that I’ll be able to help other people, and to shed light on the damage that abusive parents inflict on their children. Part of the proceeds of my book will go towards a shelter for battered women and their children.”

Mitch Albom concluded his story about Jacques with the following; “And so, at 61, Jacques Demers, a man who couldn’t learn, finally becomes a teacher.” In Jacques’ own words; “You can say my life started very badly, but maybe it will end very well”.

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