Whenever I try to tell outsiders about Detroit sports, I tell them about Jacques Demers. Here is a guy who was fired as coach, who hasn’t worked in this town in two years, yet the restaurant bearing his name is still doing nice business and whenever he as much as lands at the airport, the TV crews come out.
That’s the funny thing about our town. You give, you get, and what Demers gave was hope and victory to a hockey franchise that was in the toilet. What he got was eternal life. Or so it seems. Fans never forget. They hug him on the street. Two seasons ago, when he came back as a radio announcer, the crowd at Joe Louis Arena turned to the booth and gave him a standing ovation.
“I was embarrassed by that,” Demers, the new coach of the Canadiens, admitted now, in the Omni hotel lobby a few hours before Wednesday’s game. “I dreaded coming back — even with all those fans cheering. I hid from the players. I didn’t go to practice. Look. I had been the coach of the team and now I was a radio announcer. I was feeling ashamed.”
No such emotions Wednesday night. Demers — who once seemed to have fallen off the NHL planet — has somehow gone full circle and landed smack in the belly of the spotlight: Montreal. The Habs. Maybe the most prestigious job in hockey.
So this time, he didn’t hide. He marched through the doors, in a natty blue suit, and shook hands with everyone. The PR directors. The vendors. Even Bryan Murray, the coach who replaced him. In the pregame food room, one of the Wings’ old equipment men saw Jacques and threw an arm around him. “You want to sit with the boys?” he asked, pointing to a table.
Demers smiled. One broken heart, never another
And an hour later, he stood, arms folded, behind the Montreal bench, just a few feet from where he used to throw his glasses and chomp on gum as the beloved coach of the Wings. Even now, fans tapped on the glass to say hello. He waved.
But know this: If this city never forgets, neither does Demers. He can’t. Like a caught fish that is tossed back in the water, he is nonetheless scarred.
Here is that scar: a broken heart.
And the fear of another.
Remember that until he came here, Demers had never been flat-out fired. The day he got that phone call and drove to Mike Ilitch’s house — he walked in jovial, he walked out unemployed — was the day that would transform him forever. He doubted himself. He turned his past inside out. No one will know how low he sunk inside. In the months that followed, when vacancies were filled by other coaches, a voice would sound inside his head. “I can do better than that guy. Why didn’t they call me?”
It hurt. And now that he has the whistle back, Demers swears he will do one thing differently. “I will not be as emotional with this team,” he said, crossing his arms almost defiantly. “I won’t let myself get as involved.”
Jacques Demers? Unemotional?
“I don’t want to be hurt again. What happened here, I never knew if I’d get over it. I was so involved in this city, this team, the people, so much emotion — and then, boom! They cut the cord. Talk about bungee jumping!”
I reminded him that in bungee jumping, you bounce back.
“Yeah, but it took me two years to bounce!”
“Long cord,” I said.
“Long cord,” he laughed. Born to coach the Canadiens
You almost can’t help but root for Demers in his new job. He may have been a natural in Detroit, but he was born to coach Montreal. Literally. Grew up in that city. Was weaned on the team. “I’m the home boy,” he said, having no idea how funny that sounds from a hockey coach.
This is what he means: on the day he was to be announced as Canadiens coach, Demers managed to slip inside the Forum, where he used to sneak in to watch practices. The place was empty, and he sat down, and held his head in his hands. “Thank you, God,” he whispered, “for bringing me back.”
And a few months later, on the first day of training camp, he took the Montreal sweat suit out of the closet and slipped it on for the first time. He looked at the crest and shivered. “My father lived and died with this team,” he said.
He went to the rink, stepped onto the ice, and — with what he admits was a “funny feeling in my stomach” — blew the whistle, and a bunch of famous hockey players gathered around him. It is the magic of coaching. It is the addictive ingredient.
He was back.
Wednesday he came full circle, defeating his old team and chasing the ghosts that he had left in this building two long years ago. Although he insisted he had “nothing to prove,” as the seconds ticked off and the scoreboard read Montreal 4, Detroit 3, he banged his fist on the ledge, as if to say, “Yes, yes, yes!” And he waited for every Montreal player as he came off the ice. His team is in first place. It hasn’t lost in nine games.
Revenge? Not really. Just the sound of the home boy — theirs and ours — finally bouncing back.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Live Albom III,” Friday at the Grosse Pointe Waldenbooks, 16980 Kercheval, 6:30-7:30 p.m.