The bus pulled into the Joe Louis Arena parking lot, and the man in the blue suit peered out the window. He tugged on his canvas bag, which contained a pair of headphones and two media guides. Funny, he thought, have I ever used this entrance before? Last time he was here, and all the times before that, he had his own parking space, near the door. He would wave at the guard and drive right in, a VIP. Now he was riding the bus, with the visiting team. He did not even sit up front. That’s where the head coach sits. Jacques Demers, radio man, sat a few rows behind.
Will they remember me?
The door opened. He stepped out. “Jacques! Jacques!” screamed a group of schoolkids, rushing at him like buffalo. “Jacques! Sign this, Jacques!”
They remembered him.
He smiled. He signed. He signed Red Wings banners and Red Wings caps. A man in a Red Wings sweater yelled, “Welcome back, Jacques!” and someone else, filming him with a video camera, yelled, “You’re always at home here, Jacques.”
“Good to see you again, Jacques!”
“Hey, Jacques, you got a bum deal!”
He had been unable to sleep all afternoon, missing his customary nap, because, he would say, “I was tossing and turning — like I was coaching the game or something.” He was not coaching, of course, and that was the story. For four years Jacques Demers had been synonymous with Detroit hockey, he was the coach, the hero, the mustached Boy Scout who had found the team in the gutter and lifted it to its feet. He won a division title. Then he won another. He won coach of the year. But things soured. Players drifted from his grasp. Last season, the Wings missed the playoffs, and he was fired. This was his first trip back.
Jacques Demers, radio man.
“Hello, fellows,” he said now, as the arena staff ushered him inside.
“Hello. . . . Hello, there. . . . Nice to see you again. . . . “
A small crowd floated around him. Cameras flashed. Reporters scribbled. A security guard stepped up and handed Demers a small blue credential, for visiting media.
“Sorry,” said the guard, embarrassed, “you . . . uh, have to wear one of these.”
Once, this building was the house of his dreams. “I thought I would live here forever,” he said. But five months ago he got a phone call. Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings owner, wanted to see him. Demers jumped in his Ford truck, thinking only good things. Maybe a promotion. Maybe the general manager’s position. When Ilitch answered the door, Demers saw his face, and, as he says now, “I knew it wasn’t a promotion.”
He had been fired — for the first time in his life. On the way home, he pulled his truck off the road and his eyes began to water. This was always the Demers way. Heart. Emotion. It was his strength. Some say his weakness.
But that was then. This was now. He was Jacques Demers, radio man, and a local TV channel wanted an interview, and so he stepped into the empty arena and waddled a few steps on the ice. Once, in 1987, he had done this same shuffle in front of a packed house, and the crowd roared with delight. His team, the laughingstock of the NHL, had come from impossible odds that night to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games and advance to within one round of Stanley Cup finals. He shook his fists and threw a puck to his wife, Debbie.
Now, as he crossed the ice, he glanced up at the banner that commemorated that year, as if checking that it was still there.
“Are you going to go in the Wings locker room?” he was asked.
“I’d love to see the players,” he said, “but I don’t feel right. Bryan Murray has a team to prepare for this game. I don’t want to be a disturbance.
. . . ”
“Is it hard coming back?”
“It’s difficult. Even now when I see that red sweater, I have special feelings. . . . “
“Do you miss coaching?”
“I miss it, but I enjoy what I’m doing now. . . . I . . . ”
He gazed across the ice. Without realizing it, he had stepped behind the Wings’ bench, his old spot, the place he had sweated all those nights, and chomped on gum and thrown his glasses. Just for a moment, perhaps, some long lost feeling rose from those boards and pierced his flesh.
“I brought my heart here,” he said, suddenly. “I brought my heart here. .
. . ”
Down the hall, inside the Red Wings’ locker room, Demers’ former players dressed for the game. They had a new boss, a new attitude. Players don’t get sentimental over coaches. It’s not smart.
Still, each of them was shaped a bit by this man, as we are all shaped by the people we touch. Someone mentioned to Rick Zombo that Demers was out on the ice. Zombo smiled. He had been a marginal player when Demers arrived. He gave Zombo a chance — and the marginal player developed into a fine defenseman.
“I still remember the time Jacques and I flew to Toronto for a disciplinary hearing after I slashed a guy,” Zombo said. “He was so nervous for me. He was popping peanuts in his mouth real fast, and chewing on ice.
“When we got before Brian O’Neill (NHL executive vice president) Jacques was so worked up, he was waving his fists and pleading with the guy. I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere, but Jacques didn’t give up. He just kept pleading for me, pleading, banging his fists. Afterward, when we got turned down, he felt really bad, he was all misty-eyed.”
“He really went to bat for you, huh?” someone asked.
Zombo nodded. “Jacques went to bat for everybody.”
The game drew closer. Demers did more interviews, more greetings, more interviews. Then, almost apologetically, he said, “Excuse me. I have to do my work.”
He recorded a TV segment, in French. And a pre-game radio show, in French. He wore the headphones and he spoke professionally about the Red Wings and their fine talent. Word is he’s pretty good at this radio business. They love him in Quebec. The other night, after the Nordiques upset Vancouver in overtime, he sang “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. . . . ”
“He has a great future in broadcasting,” said his partner, Alain Crete.
“He is a natural on the radio.”
Funny, isn’t it? There was a time when you could not imagine this town without Demers, butchering the English language and pacing behind the hockey bench. Life goes on.
Still, every now and then what you give out comes back to you. So it was that during the final period Thursday, a fan bounced over to the radio booth and handed Jacques a construction paper sign that read “We Love You. Thankx 2 U, Jacques.” And then he turned he began to clap, and the row behind him began to clap, and the next row, then the whole section, and pretty soon, people were on their feet, facing the booth, cheering, one more time, for Jacques Demers. Radio man.
“I brought my heart here,” he said later, wiping his eyes. Truth is, he left a piece of it here as well.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of Live Albom II tonight, 7 p.m. at B. Dalton, Macomb Place, and Saturday, 1 p.m. B. Dalton, Fairlane, and 3:30, Books Abound, Farmington.