We pulled away from the Windsor hotel, and the mustached man in the passenger seat began fishing in his pockets for the toll fare.
“Hey,” I said, suddenly. “Do I turn here? I can’t remember. Is it here or there?”
“Gee. I’m not sure.”
“I think it’s here.”
“Yes, I . . . no . . . wait . . . is it?”
Back in the car.
With Jacques Demers.
Some of you may remember the column last season that told how I drove Demers, the Red Wings’ coach, to his first playoff game in Detroit. And the Wings won. And then, as a favor, I drove him once more. And they won again.
And, suddenly, whenever I drove him they won. And whenever I didn’t they lost. And we wound up making six trips, the last being the seventh game of the Toronto series, which proved to be the biggest win in this city in years.
And I retired the wheels.
A lot has happened since then. Demers is no longer a new guy in Detroit. His droopy eyes and Inspector Clouseau face are now instantly recognizable. Last year, when we came through the tunnel from Canada, Demers had to show his ID at the customs booth. This time, the inspector asked: “Citizenship?” and Demers said “Canadian,” and the inspector just laughed.
“Pretty famous Canadian, too,” he said. “Hey, coach, some of your players came through earlier.”
“Did they behave themselves?”
“Oh, yeah. You got ’em in line.”
I was waiting for the guy to ask for tickets.
Demers fed hungry fans
Now, I have to say, I was feeling pretty confident. Even though I had told Demers this would be the only ride of the year — you can milk a tradition only so long — the fact was, this car routine had never failed. Last year Jefferson Avenue might as well have been the Yellow Brick Road.
But this was Chapter 2. Red Wings: The Saga Continues. And things were different.
“This year Toronto is the one with the bad record and nothing to lose,” Demers said, gazing out the window as we drove along.” Our fans expect us to play good hockey now.”
He sighed. “You know, this is the first time here that if we lose, we could be bums.”
Now. OK. It is hard to imagine that word attached to this man. In Detroit, Demers is loved like a puppy. He speaks to charities. He does commercials for Dodge. He is back-slapped and kissed and hand-shaken more than a roomful of Oscar winners. Before picking him up, I had been with Pistons’ coach Chuck Daly, who scribbled a note for me to pass along: “Jacques — Good luck in the playoffs. Hope to catch a game. Chuck.”
Geez. Even other coaches root for him.
Besides, this car routine had never failed.
We’ve come to expect more
So what happens? We pull into the Joe Louis Arena and Demers thanks me, as he always does, and he even offers me his parking space for the night. We shake hands. We smile. The old car pool.
I feel confident.
And a few hours later I watch the Wings go splat.
You saw it. Their passes dribbled off sticks. Their shots were way off. The whole Detroit team looked, well, out of sync. And I’m thinking, what’s going on? Did I forget to change the oil?
After all, this Detroit team is the Norris Division winner. This Toronto team has the worst record of any hockey team to ever make the playoffs. Then I thought back to the car ride and I remembered a story Demers told about his wife:
“It’s funny,” he said, “but when she first met me, she didn’t know much about hockey. I was coaching, and we were about to enter the playoffs. And she said, ‘Honey, I hope your playoffs end soon, so we can have a nice summer together.’
“I couldn’t believe it! Ha-ha! I said, ‘Honey, These are the playoffs! This is what we dream about!’ She didn’t know. She thought they were like extra work or something.”
He laughed so hard he slapped himself. “Whoo, yeah . . . heh-heh. . . . She knows a lot better now.”
And so do we. Let’s be honest. A lot of what we now feel about hockey in this town is due to this saggy-jowled man. Even our heightened expectations in the playoffs. We expect more now, because his team did more last year. So when the Wings have an off night — and I believe that’s all it really was Wednesday in their 6-2 defeat — we suddenly feel hurt.
Was that it? That must be it. That must be the reason for the boos and the jeers Wedensday night, for the letdown that became the Wings’ 6-2 defeat by the Leafs in Game 1.
It made sense. It was logical. That was it.
And then I realized something. Last season, during those magic car rides, we always drove in my car. Only this day, my car was in the shop.
I had driven a rental.
So that explains it.