‘I Was Ashamed‘’ After Years of Abuse, Illiteracy, Demers Confronts His Demons

The beating began when he was 7 years old. His father, a drunk, would whack him with the back of his hand. He would scream insults. “You’re no good!””You’re stupid!” He would hit the boy’s sisters, as well. Worst of all, he would hit their mother, his wife, over and over, night after night. He would split her lip. He would smack her forehead until she bled. She never spoke of it. And so the boy never spoke of it. And the shame began to bubble inside him.

He grew into a man we knew – or at least a man we thought we knew – a happy, jowly hockey coach with a French-Canadian accent who worked in this city for four celebrated years. We watched him behind the bench. We interviewed him in his office. We marveled as he led a ragtag Red Wings team to within a few victories of the Stanley Cup finals.

We all knew Jacques Demers, right?

But we didn’t know him at all.

The mustached man with the twinkling eyes who always seemed so helplessly honest was, all that time, hiding a lifetime of secrets. He never spoke of the violence he’d endured. He never spoke of being so traumatized by his father’s threats that he once wet his pants rather than move from a chair.

And he never revealed the biggest consequence of all these traumas, a secret that so embarrassed him he refused to tell his first wife or his second wife or any of his children or anyone in the sports world.

Jacques Demers could not read.

And he could not write.

“I’ve never written a letter in my life,” Demers, 61, admits now. “I couldn’t read contracts or other documents from my job. I would always ask someone to ‘look it over for me,’ you know? Even autographs, I learned to write my name and ‘best wishes,’ but if anyone asked for more than that, I would say, oh, my English wasn’t so good, could they write it for me?

“On airplanes, I would put a magazine in front of me, open it up, pretend I was reading it. In the locker room, I couldn’t even write on the blackboard. I learned to spell some players names like ‘Yzerman’ and ‘Gallant’ and ‘practice at 10 a.m.’ But that was it.

“I always found other people to do things for me. Nobody knew. Only my wife, Debbie. I said to her, ‘We can never talk about this, because if it comes out, I won’t be able to work in the NHL, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is drive a truck.’ I’d driven a truck once in my life. I didn’t want to go back there.

“I was ashamed.”

Now, I guess this news hit me harder than some, because I foolishly thought I was an “expert” on Jacques Demers. I met him as a young sports writer. He gave me his home phone number. I covered his entire Detroit career. Once, back in the 1980s, I drove with him from the hotel to a playoff game. The Red Wings won that night. He was superstitious. So we did it again. And again. We ended with a six-win, no-loss transportation record.

During those rides, I thought I got to know him. I heard him talk passionately about his players, his wife, his children, his nomadic upbringing in Montreal (his alcoholic father worked as a janitor, often moving the family into the buildings where he cleaned).

And, in what now seems pathetically naïve, I took pride when he told me he liked my columns.

I never knew he couldn’t read them.

“I would have my wife tell me what you wrote,” he says now in a telephone interview. “If it was a good article or a bad article. She read them to me.”

He pauses.

“I couldn’t tell anyone my secret.”

Shame ruled his life. For Demers, lying was merely a blanket to something uglier: the truth.

“It’s like when my father would beat us, people in our building knew stuff was going on,” he says. “We’d have bruises. My mother had a swollen lip or shut eyes. People look at you and say, ‘Is everything OK?’ And you lie. You say, ‘Oh, yeah, everything is fine.’

“You’re living alone in this world. You close yourself up. It’s a big, big secret you keep inside.”

Keeping that secret led to keeping others. Like his illiteracy, which was brought on not because he was dumb, but because he didn’t sleep, staying up nights crying or cowering or comforting his bruised mother. He was always stressed. Always anxious. Fear imprisoned him, locking his young mind to the point that new ideas couldn’t get in.

So he survived. He manipulated. He got his sisters and friends to do his homework. Teachers, perhaps taking pity on him, promoted him through school. He dropped out in eighth grade and talked his way into things like job interviews or a driver’s license, telling just enough of a sad story to get officials to give him a break.

Later, when he’d made the unlikely jump into the NHL, he’d get staff members to write letters for him and assistants to “sum up” reports. He would often pat his chest and say, “Oh, I forgot my glasses,” whenever someone asked him to read something.

“I lost my glasses more than any man ever,” he says.

And no one figured it out. This is astonishing when you remember that Demers was hardly a shrinking violet. He spent parts of 15 seasons as an NHL coach with five teams. He was voted NHL coach of the year in back-to-back seasons (1987 and 1988) while with the Wings. He won the Stanley Cup in 1993 with Montreal, which makes you rock-star famous in Canada. He even served briefly as a scout with the Canadiens.

“Then one day the GM said, ‘We’re going to get the scouts computers and they can e-mail reports,’ ” Demers recalls. “I panicked. I thought, ‘I’m gonna get caught. I’m screwed.’ ”

A coaching spot opened with Tampa Bay and he leapt at it, because, by then, leaping to the next safe vine was something Jacques Demers had perfected.

“I had to survive,” he says.

But there were always ghosts. There was his mother who died, from leukemia, when she was 41. There was his father, who died three years later, when Demers was driving him home from a wedding on a hot summer day. “Put the top up, I’m cold,” he said. Moments later, he fell forward onto the dashboard, then slumped toward his son.

A heart attack.

Demers was 21.

“I cried, can you believe that?” Demers says. “Even after all that, I wanted my father to love me. But he had a hate on for me. He always said I was dumb, I would never do anything.”

Demers carried all these ghosts with him, from city to city, bench to bench, through one marriage, through another, through children. The shame kept him from speaking. Hockey was his best medicine because the game required such concentration, he had little time to stew in his anxiety. He had a mind for line changes and a memory for players. And he could communicate well – as long as it was verbal.

But a few years ago, when coaching ended, the weight of his secrets grew heavier. His buried anger began to surface. His wife, Debbie – the only one who shared his secret – insisted he get help. He finally agreed.

“I put a big toupee on my head and I sneaked in the back door to see a psychiatrist,” Demers says. “I was still ashamed. I was worried someone would see me.”

But, in time, the cloud began to lift. The therapy helped him. So, he says, did medication. Finally, as with many abused and illiterate children, Jacques Demers came upon the cleansing truth:

The shame was not on him.

He didn’t need to lie anymore.

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?

You think you know someone. Tenants think they know the people next door. Players think they knew their hockey coach. Sports writers think they know their subjects.

And so often, we know so little.

“What would you say to the boy version of Jacques Demers?” I ask him now.

“I would say I should have protected my mom better. I should have told other people what was happening. I should not have accepted it. A young boy, crying a lot, hiding yourself in a pillow so you won’t hear the noise – it wasn’t helping, you know?

“You gotta speak out. You gotta ask for help.”

He finally did. And he is finally, now, sharing his story. He called his children and told them the truth. They were shocked, but “they said they were proud of me.” He is working on his reading and writing skills. He has even, with a co-author, “written” a book about his life – one he can’t yet read, although he hopes to one day soon.

“My goal is to, within a year, be able to write my first letters – to all the people who helped me without realizing it,” he says. “I call them my angels.”

Most of all, he wants other young children, who may be cowering from their fears, to be guided from the shadows, to no longer be ashamed.

And so, at 61, Jacques Demers, a man who couldn’t learn, finally becomes a teacher. One more thing we didn’t expect, in a world where what we don’t know far exceeds what we think we do.

(SIDEBARS)

ABOUT THIS SERIES

•Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred series has been a holiday tradition in the Sports pages of the Free Press since 1994.

•If you missed last week’s installment – about a small Michigan town coping with its first death in the Iraq war – go to www.freep.com/mitch.

•Letters to the editor about Dreams Deferred, Page 14A.

•How to get help for someone who cannot read, Page 4C.

ABOUT THE MAN

Who: Jacques Demers.

Age: 61. Born Aug. 25, 1944, in Montreal. Personal: Wife Debbie, four grown children.

Head coaching career: Four seasons in the WHA (Indianapolis Racers, 1975-77; Cincinnati Stingers, 1977-78; Quebec Nordiques, 1978-79). Then parts of 15 seasons in the NHL (Nordiques, 1979-80; St. Louis Blues, 1983-86; Red Wings, 1986-90; Montreal Canadiens, 1992-95; Tampa Bay Lightning, 1997-99). Also GM with Tampa Bay.

In Detroit: Hired on a Friday the 13th – June 13, 1986 – and fired on a Friday the 13th – July 13, 1990. Coached Red Wings for four seasons. Replaced Brad Park for 1986-87 season. Turned 17-57-6, 40-point team into a 34-36-10, second-place team. Then won two Norris Division titles. Twice lost to Edmonton in the conference finals. Slipped to 28-38-14 in 1989-90, fired with three years left on his contract and replaced by Bryan Murray. “My pride is hurt,” Demers said at the time. “I thought I was going to get another shot at this. … I hope the record shows that I did some good things.” Detroit record: 137-136-47.

Overall: Posted 409-467-130 record in the NHL. Tenth all-time in games coached, 14th in victories.

Honors: Won Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 1987 and 1988, the only man to do so in consecutive years. Led Montreal to the 1993 Stanley Cup, its most recent.

Job: Hockey analyst for French-language RDS sports network.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Jacques Demers released a biography, written with former Canadiens beat writer Mario Leclere, on Nov. 2 at a luncheon at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Written in French, it is titled “Jacques Demers En Toutes Lettres,” which translates roughly to “Jacques Demers From A to Z.” Some proceeds from the book will go to shelters for battered women and literacy programs. Publisher Stanke might release an English-language version in 2006.

THE GIFT OF READING

To become a tutor or to get help for someone who cannot read, contact one of the following agencies that offer free services:

•Downriver Literacy Council. Serves southwest Detroit to Grosse Ile. 734-246-4633.

•Literacy Volunteers of America-Detroit. Serves Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. 313-872-7720.

•Macomb Literacy Partners. Serves Macomb County. 586-286-2750.

•Oakland Literacy Council. Serves Oakland County. 248-232-4664.

•Siena Literacy Center. Serves western Wayne County. 313-532-8404.

•Dominican Literacy Center. Serves Detroit and Wayne County. 313-882-4853.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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