The bus pulled into the Joe Louis parking lot and the man in the blue suit stood up. He tugged on his canvas bag, which contained a pair of headphones and two media guides. Funny, he thought, coming in this entrance. Last time he was here, he had his own parking space near the door. All he had to do was wave at the guard and pull right in. A VIP. Now he rode the bus, with the visiting team, and he did not even sit up front. That’s where the head coach sat. Jacques Demers, radio man, sat a few rows behind.
Will they remember me? he wondered.
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.
“Welcome back, Jacques!” yelled a fan in a Red Wings sweater. Another, filming him with a video camera, yelled, “You’re always at home here, Jacques!” The kids mobbed him for autographs, pushing sweaters, pennants, programs. He smiled. He signed everything.
“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 —
“I was tossing and turning, like I was coaching the game or something.”
He was not coaching, of course, and that was what worried him. For four years Demers had been synonymous with Detroit hockey, the mustached wizard who had found the team in the gutter and lifted it to its feet. He won a divisional title. Then he won another. Twice, he was NHL coach of the year.
But things soured. Players drifted from his grasp. Last season, the Wings missed the playoffs, and the wizard was fired. This was his first trip back. Would they accept him for who he was now, a commentator for the Nordiques broadcasts? Jacques Demers, radio man?
“Hello, fellows,” he said, shaking hands 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.”
Can you go home again? Once this building was the house of his dreams. “I thought I would live here forever,” Jacques Demers said. But five months ago he got that 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. He knew.
It wasn’t a promotion.
He had been fired. For the first time in his life. The team he had rescued, breathed life into their nostrils, this team had somehow gotten away from him. Fired? On the way home he pulled his truck off the road. 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. And now he was Jacques Demers, radio man, two hours before game time and TV guys wanted interviews. He stepped gingerly on the ice and waddled toward the cameras.
“Over here?” he asked, sliding.
Once in 1987 he had done this same shuffle as the crowd roared with delight. His team, the laughingstock of the NHL, had come from impossible odds that night to upset Toronto in seven games and advance to within one round of Stanley Cup Finals.
Now as he crossed the surface he glanced up at the banner hanging from the rafters, the one marked “1987,” as if checking that it was still there.
“Will you go into 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. 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 where he chomped on gum and threw his glasses and worked minor miracles. For a moment, a long-lost feeling rose from the 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’ old players dressed for the game. They had a new boss. A new attitude. Players don’t get too 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. But the coach saw something, a hunger, a desire. He gave Zombo a chance — and the marginal player developed into a pretty fine defenseman.
“I still remember the time Jacques and I flew to Toronto for a disciplinary hearing after I slashed a guy. He was so nervous for me. He was popping peanuts in his mouth real fast and chewing on ice.
“When we stood 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 really went to bat for you, huh?” someone said.
Zombo nodded. “Jacques went to bat for everybody.”
The game drew closer. Demers did more interviews, more greetings, more interviews. Then, almost apologetically, the radio man said, “Excuse me, I have to do my work.”
He recorded a TV segment, in French. And a pregame radio show, in French. He wore the headphones and he spoke professionally about the Red Wings, tonight’s opponent. 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.”
They went upstairs. They took their places. And when the game began, there was Demers in the booth, broadcasting. Funny, isn’t it? Life goes on. This is both cruel and kind.
Still, now and then, you get what you deserve. So during the final period Thursday, a fan reached into the radio booth and handed Jacques a construction paper sign that read “Welcome Back, Luv and Thanx 2 U, Jacques.” And then this fan 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 the mustached wizard. For Jacques Demers, radio man.
“I brought my heart here,” he said later, wiping his eyes. Truth is, he left a piece of it 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.