by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Sometime this afternoon, I will drive over to Jacques Demers’ place and honk the horn. That should make at least two punk rockers happy. I am talking about the two guys who stopped me outside Joe Louis Arena before the first game of this crazy Toronto-Detroit playoff series — they had leather pants and leather jackets and spiked hair and Red Wings shirts; I can only assume they liked punk rock — and who only wanted to ask me this: “Did you drive Jacques to the game tonight?”

And I said no, not this time.

And they groaned. “Damn! You gotta drive him, man! You gotta! You’re the good luck charm. Damn! Oh, no! 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 because enough is enough, it will end today. No matter what.

I will be honest; not without some regret. What began as a simple interview on the way to Demers’ first Detroit playoff game has turned into a sort of regular appointment with this quixotic hockey coach, the way two old-timers meet for breakfast every Saturday morning, or two co-workers car-pool in from the suburbs. Bowling night. Bridge night. The ride to the game.

“You ready to go?” I say.

“I’m ready,” he says.

And six hours later they win.

Not bad, huh?

But there is more. The reason I am writing this. 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 customs officials, toll collectors, fans. I have even parked in his parking spot. Once. Just to see what it was like. (The answer is: It is near the entrance.)

And I will tell you this much: The guy is a great car-pool partner. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t roll down the windows, he doesn’t tune to country western 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, just observing the whole thing with wide-eyed wonder.

There was, for example, the first ride, the playoff opener against Chicago, where we drove in from the Windsor Hilton and he said: “You know, I love water. It has a calming affect on me. I like to stand by the hotel window and just look out on it and see the Detroit skyline, and say, ‘Tonight, over there, in that building, 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 Six in Toronto, certainly the biggest game of the year so far, Demers told me to 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 Greg Stefan, the team’s No. 1 goalie. He had told the media that Stefan “would not see the Leafs again this series,” and he asked what I thought. And I shrugged, trying to be nice, and said he probably wished he hadn’t made that statement. And he said: “No. I meant it. I still do. We’re all big boys here. I’m the coach.”

So who’s who here? Who’s the real Jacques Demers? The genteel French-Canadien who was unloading trucks before his first coaching job? Or the hard-line coach 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. Demers can work with characters without losing his own. He is never haughty, never far from humble, yet he will not permit his players the comfort of feeling second-best. “No excuses,” he told them before 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 much the 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 has taken a hockey team that left its fans ashamed last season and has instilled pride and guts. And now it is on the verge of advancing to the semifinals of the NHL playoffs, a round Demers reached last year with the St. Louis Blues, a team considered far superior to the Wings in terms of pure talent.

How is it that Demers gets his men to play so well for him? Some say it is because if you don’t, you are gone. A peek at the 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.
“The playoffs, there can be no excuses.”

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.”

Why not? Here is a man who was about to take a job as a computer operator when a hockey coaching spot opened up. A guy who only wanted to make enough to eat and who now lives quite comfortably in the suburbs as a Motown celebrity. Why shouldn’t he be optimistic? “So many good things have happened to me,” he will say, on the average, at least once a day.

“What of it ended tonight?” I have asked him on the ride to the last two games.

“I won’t feel bad,” he said Friday. “You never want a season to end, especially on a loss. But we accomplished some of our goals. We didn’t do any miracles, though. But we accomplished some of our goals.”

He paused. He looked out the window. Then, as is his habit, he changed the subject. He asked me about my travel schedule. I rattled off a string of meaningless flight reservations to places like Atlanta and Louisville.

“Boy, you got a great job, eh?” he said.

I have a theory for Demers’ occasional language lapse: French works differently than English. In French, you put the the object between the subject and the verb. This means “I see you” would be “je vous vois,” or, in English, “I you see.” I think. Unless there’s an “a” in there. I could be wrong. I was never that good at French.

Anyhow, maybe this is why Demers has the occasional spot of trouble with his English, which has led to dozens of impersonations, and a few good laughs. He can create phrases heretofore unheard. (My personal favorite is “He doesn’t know me from Adams.” But you may have your own.)

Again, the mishaps are merely part of his charisma. And tonight, in a fever pitch, the charismatic coach takes his spot behind the bench for a game no one figured to see when this season started. “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 we’ll see. There is a sense that no year will be as sugar-coated for Demers as this one has been. History shows us people get used to anything, even manna from heaven, and so surely the fans here will begin to expect the results next season, and find fault when they do not arise.

But for now, an appreciation. For the coach. For the team he has put together. It is not easy to restore lost pride. It is not easy to spin defeatist straw into “we can do anything” gold. The natural enemy of progress is speed, and yet this whole turn-around has taken place is less than a year. When they drop the puck tonight for Game 7, we should stop and remember how remarkable that really is.

So this is the last lucky car pool. A chance to retire the lucky engine undefeated. 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. Glory. 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? Je vous salute, Mr. Demers. Whatever happens, happens. The car will miss the attention. The driver will miss the company.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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