Sometime this afternoon, I will drive to Jacques Demers’ house and honk the horn. And that should make two bikers in this city very happy. I am talking about the two guys in leather jackets and leather pants and spiked hair and boots who stopped me outside Joe Louis Arena before the first game of this Toronto-Detroit playoff series. This was all they wanted to know: “Did you drive Jacques to the game tonight?”
And I said no, not this time.
“Damn!” they said, groaning. “You gotta drive him, man! You gotta! You’re the good luck charm! Damn! Now what? Now we’re gonna lose!”
And I shrugged.
And I went inside.
And the Red Wings lost.
So relax guys. I will honk. He will get in. I am not sure when my car and the fortunes of the Red Wings actually became intertwined. I do know Jacques Demers and I have now driven to five playoff games together and Detroit has won all five, and now even Demers, who is not superstitious, is asking me what time we’re leaving. And it has been great fun, and a little spooky. And it will end today. No matter what.
I will be honest; it is not without some regret. What began as a simple interview on the way to Demers’ first Detroit playoff game — and the column that got the bikers so worked up — has turned into a sort of regular appointment with this quixotic hockey coach, the way two buddies might meet for breakfast on Saturday morning, or car pool in from the suburbs. Bowling night. Bridge night. The ride to the game.
“You ready top go?” I say.
“I’m ready,” he says.
And six hours later they win.
Not bad, huh?
But there is more. In the last two weeks, I have done “the drive” with Demers in Detroit, Chicago and Toronto. I have heard him talk hockey, weather, his wife, the Kentucky Derby, airplanes, music, French, Greg Stefan and truck driving. I have seen him joke with toll collectors. I have seen a Canadian customs officer ask for his autograph. I have even parked in his Joe Louis Arena parking spot. Once. Just to see what it was like. (The answer is: It is near the door.)
And I will tell you this: The guy is a great car-pool partner. He doesn’t play with the windows, he doesn’t tune to country music stations. He is also very tough to figure out. You get the feeling you are carting around two men; one a general who is in complete control, the other a baby leprechaun, absorbing the human race with wide-eyed wonder.
Take, for example, the first ride in from Windsor — Game 1 against the Black Hawks — where we drove along the river and he suddenly said: “You know, I love water. It makes me calm. I like to stand by the hotel window and just look out on it and see the Detroit skyline, and say, ‘Tonight, over there, there’s gonna be a big hockey game.’ “
Or the time in Chicago, when we drove through a rundown section of the west side, dirt-poor, and Demers couldn’t take his eyes off of it: “Look at that. To live like that. . . . We have no right to complain. Jeez. Look at that.”
Before Friday night’s Game 6 in Toronto, certainly the biggest game of the season so far, Demers told meto take a sudden right turn en route to Maple Leaf Gardens: “Let’s drive up Yonge Street. You’ll see how beautiful it is. . . . Look at all these shops. Wow.”
And yet, there was also the ride after he benched Stefan, the team’s No. 1 goalie. He’d told the media Stefan “would not see the Leafs again” and he asked what I thought, and, trying to be nice, I said he probably wished he hadn’t made that statement. And he said firmly: “No. I meant it. I still do. We’re all big boys here. I’m the coach.”
So who’s chipping in for the tolls here? Who’s the real Jacques Demers? The genteel French-Canadian who was unloading trucks before his first coaching job? Or the hard-line leader who said, “We’ll be back for a Game 7” even when the Wings trailed Toronto, three games to one?
The answer is both. That is his magic, the secret of his success. Demers can work with characters without losing his own. He is never far from humble, yet he will not permit his players the comfort of feeling second best. “No excuses,” he told them during Friday night’s 4-2 victory. “We have played 90 games this season. If you want to play 91, you better win this.”
He is at once charming and determined, blue-collar and sacre-bleu! I cannot recall the last time a coach turned on a city this much. Yet there is no denying Demers is as big a Detroit star as anyone wearing skates and a helmet. (This, by the way, has been another car subject: “I’m afraid people are getting sick of me,” he says. “All these interviews. How much can I say? Won’t the people get sick of me? What do you think?”)
But remember this. Demers, 42, has transformed a hockey team that left its fans ashamed last season. He has instilled pride and guts. And now it is on the verge of the NHL playoff semifinals — a round Demers reached last year with St. Louis, considered far superior to these Wings in pure talent. One year? He did that in one year?
How is it that Demers gets his men to play so well for him so quickly? Some say it is because if you don’t, you are gone. A peek at the Wings’ opening and closing season rosters will bear that out. So will Stefan’s benching, and that of Petr Klima Friday night. “These are the times you gotta produce,” Demers said fervently during a recent ride. “The playoffs, there can be no excuses. No, sir. Not now.”
Then he fished into his pockets.
“Need change for the tunnel?” he asked.
On Friday, before what could have been the season’s final game, I asked Demers if he could even remember the season opener anymore.
“Loss to Quebec, 6-1,” he said, quickly. “I told the guys right then,
‘This won’t do. We can’t have this.’ “
“Did you have any idea then you’d go as far as you have?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Even then I believed we would make the playoffs.”
Well, why not? Here is a man who was about to take a job as a computer operator when a hockey coaching spot opened up. The son of a butcher who wanted only enough to eat and who now lives quite well in the suburbs as a Motown celebrity. An Inspector Clouseau look-alike who figured his sport would have to be his mistress, until he met his future wife (his second) behind the desk at a hockey team office. Hey. Why shouldn’t he be optimistic?
“So many good things have happened to me,” he will say.
He says it, on average, about once a day.
“What happens when this ends?” I asked before Game 5. “What will it feel like?”
“It’s hard,” he said. “The day after your last game, you feel very sad. You wake up lonely. It’s like a dream that you don’t ever want to end. But you know it has to.”
He paused, and looked out the window. He asked me about my travel schedule. I rattled off a string of meaningless flights to places like Atlanta and Louisville.
“Boy, you got a great job, eh?” he said.
I have a theory about Demers’ occasional language bloopers: French works differently than English. In French, you put the object between the subject and the verb. So “I see you” would be “je vous vois.” Which in English would be “I you see.” I think. Unless I’m wrong. I was never good at French.
Anyhow, maybe this is why Demers, a native of Montreal, has the occasional spot of trouble with English, which has led to dozens of impersonations, and a few good laughs.
It is true, he can create some beautiful phrases. He once explained himself to a Sports Illustrated reporter: “Everyone said when he gets to Detroit he’ll take a landslide, but I think I’ve done a commandable job. . .
He also once said: “They can recuperate a lot of pucks out there.” And a personal favorite, after a congratulatory note from Sparky Anderson: “Isn’t that nice? He doesn’t know me from Adams.”
But OK. The malaprops are merely part of his charisma. So is the smile. So is the camaraderie with his players, the way they all say, “Oh, Jacques, you know, he’s . . . “
And tonight, in a fever pitch, Oh, Jacques, you know, the charismatic coach, will take his spot behind the bench for a game no one imagined when this season began. Game 7. Leafs vs. Wings. “We want to win for the fans, we want to win for ourselves. I personally, you know, would like to win, too,” he said.
And perhaps they will. But whatever the result, there is a sense that no season will be as sugar-coated for Demers as this one has been. There will eventually be negative press. Eventually, criticism. History proves that people get used to anything, even manna from heaven. So surely the Detroit fans will expect big results next season, and will find fault if they do not arise.
But tonight will be madness. Tonight will be pandemonium. Horns, crowds, buzzers, millions of hopes and dreams. So for now, a simple appreciation: for the coach, and for the team he has put together. It is not easy to restore lost pride. It is not easy to spin “straw” defeat into “we can do it” gold. Where were the Red Wings one year ago? Do you remember? When they drop the puck tonight for Game 7, it would not hurt to marvel at that distance.
So listen up, bikers, wherever you are. This is it. We’re square. The last lucky car pool. If the Wings can advance to play Edmonton, they certainly don’t need me or my wheels. But for now, I will throw some gas in, and pick out a decent radio station. And we’ll see, we’ll see. Playoffs mean different things to different people. Victory. Heroism. But in a funny way, these, at least for me, have meant something I didn’t count on: a mirror to a good man’s thoughts. Can I butcher some French here? It’s only fair. Je vous salute, Mr. Demers.
And don’t make me honk twice, OK?
Coach Jacques Demers led the cheers when the Red Wings eliminated Chicago, four games to none, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.