He finished shaving as the city locked its desk. He pulled on his pants as the city shut the lights. He came down for coffee as the city left the office. It was 5 o’clock. He was going to work.
“How do you feel?” I asked Jacques Demers, jangling my car keys.
“I feel good,” he said.
Tonight would be his first playoff game as coach of the Detroit Red Wings. He and the team were staying at a hotel, the Windsor Hilton, across the river in Canada, and he had taken his afternoon nap and soon he would be ready to go.
I was his ride.
Well, somebody has to drive the guy, right? Actually, my original idea was to tag along in his passenger’s seat, see what it was like. And I was hesitant to ask. Many professional coaches want to be alone in the hours before the big one. Many want to privately reach that special place, where it is just them and the challenge.
“Can we take your car?” Jacques asked.
Others do not.
So I was to be his ride, which was fine. And there we sat, having coffee, like two salesmen before their morning rounds and . . .
Gas. Did I have gas? Ohmigod.
Until that moment, I must admit, I figured coaches and players had some magical way of arriving for big games. Weren’t they dropped in by helicopter? Didn’t they have their own underground tunnels?
Jacques Demers will kill a lot of those fantasies for you. You almost expect Jacques Demers to carpool. In one season he had taken a bad joke and turned it into a hockey team, and now it was in the playoffs. Yet during his nap, he had asked the switchboard to hold his calls — athletes do that all the time — and now he was fretting.
“I don’t want people to think I’m a big shot,” he said. He paid for the coffee.
I paid for the gas. Just another commuter Demers’ mother tongue is French, and sometimes he bobbles the English language — “They don’t know me from Adams,” he said Wednesday — but then sometimes, he creates a real gem. On the way to the car, I asked if there was any unique feeling the first day of the playoffs.
“Today, you have the right to dream,” he said.
So how does the big coach get to the big game? On the passenger side. He had trouble with the seat belt, if that matters.
“What kind of music?” I asked him, pointing to the cassette deck.
“Oh, whatever you like,” he said.
And we drove to work. We drove through downtown Windsor, and through the tunnel, and we were stopped by the customs agent on the U.S. side, a big guy with sunglasses. He asked Demers for his papers. Then he asked for an autograph.
And when we got out of the tunnel, I said, “Which way?” and neither of us was sure. I don’t know where Jacques Demers ranks on X’s and O’s. I do know he was the only coach who came to work Wednesday night from another country.
We passed people on Jefferson Avenue leaving their offices. Some carried briefcases and some carried beer cans, and they all seemed to be heading toward the arena, slowly. At one point I caught Demers just staring out at them, quietly, and he looked very young.
“You know,” he suddenly said, “a lot of these people will wake up in a lousy mood tomorrow if we lose tonight. It’s true. That’s what we’re doing. We’re playing with people’s moods in this city.
“I don’t want to let them down. Look at these people. I’d be terribly embarrassed if we lose.” A winning combination We pulled into the Joe Louis lot. “You can park in my space,” Demers said, but there was already a car in his space. Demers shrugged. He got to the door and a woman wished him luck, and she read him a poem. Demers said, “How do you like that, a poem!” and then he reached out and found the door was locked.
“Um . . . I don’t have my key,” he said.
Anyhow, we got in eventually, and Demers marched down the concrete corridor, saying hello to the food vendors. And then he was inside the locker room. Petr Klima, the star left wing, was signing a hockey stick.
“Hello, Petr,” said Demers.
“Hello, Jacques,” said Petr.
And the coach went into his office.
In a few hours the game would start. His Wings would win, 3-1, over Chicago, and give the city its first playoff victory in three years. It would be a great moment.
And now? Well. I don’t believe Jacques Demers is superstitious. Then again,
these are the playoffs. So I will offer him a deal. I will drive him in every
game as long as the Wings keep winning. He can buy the coffee. I will buy the gas. We will be the lucky car pool. And if they go all the way? The Stanley Cup? The dream of dreams . . . ?
He can pick the music.