by | May 14, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The man in the Coca-Cola uniform opened the back of his truck. Another day, another delivery. He loaded the cases and rolled the trolley through the tunnel. He has been making this stop at the Montreal Forum for a long time, since he was a young man, and he is middle-aged now. In the old days, he had this partner, a talkative young fellow who spoke French very quickly. As they carried their load, the guy always said, “Marcel, I’m going to do more with my life than this.”

Marcel sees that fellow now and then. He’s back working in Montreal — in the Forum, matter of fact. Sometimes, in a free minute, Marcel goes up to his office and sits on the couch.

“Ca va, Jacques,” he says.

And Jacques Demers, hottest coach in hockey, leader of the Montreal Canadiens and former Coca-Cola truck driver, says “Ca va” right back.

The best part about the resurrection of King Jacques isn’t the success — although he has found plenty of that in his old hometown. Montreal doesn’t simply like its winning hockey coaches, it canonizes them. So now, with the Canadiens, winners of eight playoff games in a row, first through the chute into the NHL semifinals, well, you can imagine. Demers is a god.

He holds daily press conferences. He does French, then does English. The media wait for him. He is more quoted, they say, than the prime minister. But this is not the best part.

“They love you, they kiss you, they pat you on the back,” Demers says,
“and then, one morning, you wake up and bang! It’s over. Remember Detroit?”

Thinks of Wings and doesn’t see red

Oh, yes. Detroit. The best part is not that Demers, 48, has the last laugh on his old team, either. True, he was canned after the Red Wings failed to make the ’90 playoffs — “Jacques has lost his touch,” critics said — and yet here he is, his first year back after a hiatus as a TV-radio announcer, and he has taken a young Montreal team to the semifinals. That’s farther than the Wings have gone since, well, Demers was here.

And now he reads that the guy who replaced him, Bryan Murray, might be out as coach.

“I take no satisfaction from that,” Demers says. “I only wonder if it’s worth all fuss you go to in firing someone if the person you let go had better years than the next guy.

“But Bryan Murray is a good man, and I feel for what he’s going through right now. I really do.”

So gloating is not the best part, either. Demers is not a vindictive man, nor is he a greedy man. He is a cauldron of human emotion, all bubbly and spicy, who built a legend in Detroit out of throwing his glasses, mispronouncing English, laughing at himself, and making young hockey players believe they could do anything. He still talks about those days the way most people talk about their old summer camp. “Detroit made Jacques Demers,” he says.

But he has found a new home. His old home. And it is slowly taking him over. Thankfully, he got what he deserved

Understand that Demers, the child of an alcoholic father, grew up in an apartment building on Van Horne street in Montreal. His family served as the janitorial staff. He cleaned floors, shoveled coal. His mother died of leukemia, virtually in his arms. Three years later, as a teenager, Demers was riding in the car when his father lurched forward, then fell into his lap. Heart attack. He was dead.

One week later, the trucks came to take the rented furniture. Demers, like most children of the real world, went to work. The Coca-Cola company. Delivery man. He stayed 11 years.

So when he sits in the Forum, on quiet days, all alone, and looks at the rafters and whispers, “Thank you, God, for bringing me home,” you understand it is not some Hollywood line. And when Coca-Cola officials sign him to do promotional work, and they pay him $50,000, and the most he ever made as a driver for them was $68 a week, well, you know this is a man who appreciates money.

And when he sits with his old coworker Marcel, or when he wins and his players say what his players had stopped saying in Detroit, “We respect Jacques,” well, you can’t help but feel that maybe life is round, it has symmetry, and good people get what they deserve in the end.

“Everything is great right now. This is a great organization and a great team. We have the home we always wanted. My wife is great. My kids are great.

“The only thing I’m not happy with is my eating. I still eat too much. My doctor says I eat my emotion. I think it’s too much pizza.”

He laughs. The caller laughs. And Demers, between chuckles, says, “You can’t change the old Frenchman, eh?”

That’s the best part.


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