MALTA — So it turns out, I am the last to learn that Jacques Demers was fired. That’ll teach me to go on vacation. The news, it seems, never stops, no matter where you hide, at least not the bad news. And while I would like to ignore it, to tell myself that coaches get fired all the time, I tried. I can’t.
In the last four years, I’ve come to know this guy, this hopeless optimist with the mustache and the bad accent, and I once felt like he would be around forever. Maybe I just wished it. Here was such a rarity in pro sports — a man with a heart. And last week he was summoned to Mike Ilitch’s house to have that heart squished. Sit down. You’re fired.
So I called him, from over here. Which, it turns out, is more than some people have done since he was dumped, including his captain, Steve Yzerman, who is on vacation, I guess someplace where they haven’t invented the telephone. My friends, I know you’ve heard a crater’s worth of talk on this subject, but I feel, even from this far away, that I must say this: The Red Wings should be ashamed of themselves. They have stripped Detroit of one of its most admirable heroes, and it’s damned unfair, because he was buried by some of the very people he most trusted. And while I’m sure those people would like to wipe their hands of his dust and get on with the new guy, Bryan Murray, who arrives today as coach and general manager, there are a few things about Demers the man that maybe they and you should know.
And I’m gonna say them, like it or not. First of all, no one fretted over the team’s recent slide more than Demers. I know this, because now and then, over the past year, he would call me at home, usually early in the morning, asking to talk privately about his team and his coaching. Why, he wondered, weren’t things like they were three years ago, when his young players captured the hearts of this hockey- hungry city?
Most people have too much of an ego for this. They talk to the media only to rag on some teammate or owner. Not Demers. If he respected you, he’d ask your opinion. And he respected a lot of people. In all the times we spoke — on the record, off the record — not once did he knock his star players, his general manager, his assistant coaches or his front-office people. Not once. If there was a problem, he blamed himself. I want this known, because, obviously, some of those same people didn’t return the favor. If they did, he’d still be coaching today.
Even when we spoke Sunday, Demers refused to point fingers. “Maybe I’m an idiot,” he said, “but I just don’t want to believe that people would go behind my back. That would hurt more than losing my job.” This, despite the fact that every rumor mill has some players and even assistant coaches bad- mouthing Demers in private, including Yzerman. This, despite the fact that Ilitch himself told Demers that a few key players informed him that Jacques couldn’t motivate the team anymore.
Yes. Well. Let’s talk about motivating a team where players are handed
$5,000 checks for winning a few midseason games. Let’s talk about motivating a team where, by simply making the third round of the playoffs, each player winds up with more loot from the owner than he’d get if his team won the Stanley Cup. Let’s talk about motivating a team where players who were fined
$16,000 by Demers for their parts in the demoralizing Goose Loonies incident in Edmonton eventually got that money back from the owner anyhow — without the coach even knowing it.
Let’s talk about motivating a team where Bob Probert and Petr Klima were permitted to make a mockery of the very word. Team? Did you know that at one point, when Demers — who made mistakes in cushioning those two, mostly because his own father died an alcoholic — finally reached his boiling point and told the higher-ups, “Let’s get rid of them. Whatever it takes. They’re destroying the team,” did you know that he was told the following? “You’re the coach. We pay you to coach them. That’s all.”
Um-hmm. Let’s talk about motivation and how it all must be Jacques’ fault. Or let’s talk about a fellow named Jimmy Devellano, who was also conveniently out of town, in Lake Placid, N.Y., a most interesting name given this tumultuous weekend. I have one question: Why is Devellano still employed? Why is he not guilty for the Wings’ recent failures? He has been here eight years and only once did the Wings finish above .500. A coach can only work with the players provided. Where were they? Sure, people will point to the Adam Oates-for-Bernie Federko trade and say, “Wasn’t that Jacques’ doing?” In fact, the resentment over this trade prompted several players to turn on Demers, to whine and mope. One actually accused Jacques to his face of
“trading for your buddy Bernie Federko.” Demers had to explain that he and Federko were not buddies, simply a former coach and player being reunited. What he should have said was, “Grow up and play hockey.” He also should have said that Devellano had a major role in that trade, too.
And yet, instead of a departure, Devellano today simply abdicates his GM duties to Murray and slips into a new office upstairs, safe from the flood. Beautiful. Typical sports world justice. Devellano, who didn’t do his job, survives this thing. And Probert, who did nothing to deserve his job, is still on the team. And Klima, who was never more than a selfish boy on fast skates, winds up with his name on the Stanley Cup as part of the Edmonton Oilers.
And Demers is fired.
Sure. Makes sense, right? But let me get back to what makes Demers unique, and why, in some ways, he may be too good for this organization. Over the years, I’ve seen him in a lot of situations. I’ve seen him scolding players; I’ve seen him talk to them like a father. I watched at a charity roast when a blind woman rose to sing a version of the national anthem and Demers began to cry. I saw his face when I informed him that Klima and Probert had been out drinking that night in Edmonton. It turned white. And yet, he refused to duck my questions.
I saw him that night at Joe Louis Arena in 1987, his finest hour, when the Wings fought back from a 3-1 series deficit and beat Toronto in seven games to capture the Norris Division playoffs crown. He waddled onto the ice and tossed a puck to his wife, Debbie. And I saw him this spring, his lowest moment, the night the Wings were eliminated from making the playoffs; he was hoarse, bloated, red-eyed. He looked like a man who had tried to suck in all the bad air in the locker room, so his boys could go out and win one more game.
In every pose, I saw the same thing: Heart. Passion. Commitment. And on Sunday, I listened to Demers talk, that same rollicking voice now tinged with sadness: “I woke up this morning and I felt like the loneliest man in the world,” he said. “I’ve gone my whole hockey career and never got fired. I was proud of that. Suddenly, after all this time, I don’t have a team to go to. No practice, no office. . . .”
He sighed. “And the thing is, we were ready to jell. Jimmy Carson was healthy. Probert was finally back and straight. We made some good pickups. We’re ready to go. . . .”
Listen to him. He’s still talking as if he’s coaching the team. And he refuses to bad-mouth the very people who did him in. For this type of loyalty, the Wings waited to fire Demers until mid-July, when there is almost no chance of him finding a job for next season.
Class move. Sometime in the near future, the truth about all this will come out. Did Yzerman have a role in the firing? Why did Devellano tell Demers he knew nothing about his dismissal — come on, the man is in the organization, isn’t he? Ah. Whatever. By that point, people will already be putting mothballs on the Demers Era, typing it into the record books as four seasons, two coach-of-the-year awards, one never-ending controversy and no Stanley Cups.
Those on the inside will never dismiss it so easily. Yes, it is true, Demers, like all fired coaches, will continue to be paid for the three years on his contract. No one is painting him as broke. But it won’t be money that will be missed. There was some magic here once, in the shape of this pudgy pied piper who, for nearly two years, had a bunch of hungry kids believing that effort was enough, that sweat was an elixir, that anything was possible. We fans believed it, too.
Gone now. Maybe the new guy will do well. Maybe he’ll be lucky enough to avoid a seasonlong injury to Carson, a lame goalie, a Probert-Klima fiasco that poisons the soul of the team. “Bryan Murray is a good man; he’ll do well,” Demers told me over the phone. Typical. It was like listening to your grandfather tell you everything will be all right, even as he lies in a hospital bed.
Maybe all sports organizations are this callous. Maybe winning is not only the bottom line, it’s the only line. If Jacques Demers was fired, after all he did and all he tried to do, then there can be no other conclusion.
But that doesn’t make it right. I don’t care how many players or front-office people hide behind that excuse. At some point, you make an allowance for character. You see the man behind the suit. Since his firing, at least four players have been to Demers’ house to express their sorrow, and many more have called him. So he must have gotten through to some of them, right?
He got through to me. He got through to a lot of us. You have this feeling now not unlike the end of that film, “Dead Poets Society,” where a teacher with character is fired by his employers, but his disciples — most of them, anyhow — stand up on their desks to salute as he leaves.
I’m standing now, even 4,000 miles away. A bientot, Jacques Demers. You deserved better.