When I last left Jacques Demers, it was 6 a.m. on a cold spring morning at the Windsor airport. His team, the Detroit Red Wings, had just lost to Edmonton in the conference finals, the end to a gloriously crazy hockey season that had gone further than anyone expected. We had flown all night to get home, and that morning everyone had bleary eyes and scratchy throats and planes to catch, so we said so long, nice job, and scattered.

And now we were meeting again. On a cold December morning before a game with, yes, Edmonton. It was six months later, already into the new season. But it was the same old Demers. He was waiting in a deli with a cup of coffee. He was early. A coach is early for a reporter about as often as President Reagan dances with Janet Jackson.

“Good to see you,” he said, smiling. We ordered some breakfast. He mentioned that after this he had to fly to Toronto to accompany one of his players, Mike O’Connell, who was scheduled for a league hearing on a suspension.

“Doesn’t someone else usually do that?” I asked. “An assistant coach or the GM?”

Demers just shrugged. “Yeah. But Mike has been supportive of me as a player. I want to be supportive of him as a coach.”

Same old Demers. I remember talking last year with Keith Gave, the Free Press hockey writer, about how the hardest part of dealing with this guy is trying not to like him too much. “Sooner or later you’ll have to write something negative,” he said, “and it’ll be tough.”

It will be. And I’ll tell you why. For one thing, the guy is honest. Second, after last season, he told his players: “Don’t get snobby. Remember where you came from.” And they finished under .500.

Besides, what Jacques Demers does to the English language should be bottled.

“When we played Edmonton,” Demers said, “people there didn’t give us a chance. They said we were just a passing stone to the finals.”

A passing stone? Mental toughness Well. With Demers, you get used to funny fits. Tonight the Wings face Edmonton again, the arena will be packed, and memories will wash back of that nutty week in May when everything seemed possible in this hockey town, a once- pitiful team could rise from ashes and challenge for the Stanley Cup. “I like playing Edmonton,” Demers said. “They’re the best. They have mental toughness.

“That’s what I’m trying to build here. Mental toughness. I see it happening. Like last week when we’d lost two games at home. I put the players through two hours on the ice, then two hours of meetings, then I made them go back on the ice again. That’s when I watch them, to see if they say ‘Why me?’ Or if they’re still hungry.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes, you know, you got to step on a few heads.”

“Toes,” I corrected. “Step on a few toes.”

He shrugged. “Well, you know how I learn English, don’t you? By myself.”

I can buy that.

Jacques Demers, droopy face, mustache and funny talk, has become a fixture in this town. He came through Detroit last year as if on magic skates. But last year was last year. “I was at the Tigers game this October when they won their division. And the ovation wasn’t as loud as when we beat the Toronto Maple Leafs (for the Norris Division playoff title). I think it’s because our fans had been waiting so long, while the Tigers had won a championship recently.”

“What did you learn from that?” I asked.

“I learned if we don’t do well this season, we’ll get a kick in the butt from the fans.” Stanley Cup fever

The Red Wings aren’t world beaters. They are barely above .500. We forget that sometimes in this town. We get too excited. And here is why: Demers. I believe he has a bad case of Stanley Cup flu. And I believe it is contagious.

“You know,” he said, talking quickly now, “I dream how it would be to win the Stanley Cup here. . . . I just want to see the face of those kids I pushed to the maximum. I want to see Stevie Yzerman’s face, or Shawn Burr, or Petr Klima . . . or Greg Stefan. I just wanna see Greg Stefan’s face. He’s been here a long time. I just wanna see him say ‘You SOB you.” And gimme a good hard punch in the shoulder. . . .

“Last year, when Edmonton won it, I was doing TV commentary. I saw them celebrating. The first thing I said: ‘Detroit’s gonna win that. We are gonna win that.’ “

“Who’d you say it to?” I asked.

“Myself,” he said.

We checked the time. He was going to be late. “Go on ahead,” I told him. As I reached for my jacket, I glanced at the bottom of my note pad where I had scribbled “step on a few heads.” And I choked down a laugh, really choked it down, because there was no reason to be laughing at that point, sitting there all alone. Then I laughed anyhow. I couldn’t help it. Jacques Demers will probably do great things with this hockey team. And trying not to like him isn’t getting any easier.

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