SUN Hockey Pool

'I had to get this out'

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

Jacques Demers would drape his head in a tuque, wear a disguise, book a late appointment, anything to prevent him from being recognized at his weekly psychiatric sessions.

The sessions that changed his life and have led to the stunning revelation that he is, in fact, illiterate.

"I didn't want to hide anymore," said Demers, the longtime National Hockey League coach and general manager in a lengthy conversation yesterday. "All my life I've been hiding.

"I never tried to fool anybody but basically I did what I did because it was the only way I could survive. I never thought I'd have to lie to people. I never thought I've had to live a lie.

"But there was no way anyone would have hired me if they knew. There's no way I ever get a job in the National Hockey League if anybody knew."

Now everyone knows. And yesterday, all through the hockey world, heads were shaking and shock was the operative emotion. Players called. Friends called. Former bosses called. All of them stunned, all of them supportive.

"Did I know?" asked Jimmy Devellano, who hired Demers to coach the Detroit Red Wings. "I knew he wasn't big into paper work. But no, I didn't know."

Demers hired Cliff Fletcher as an adviser, when he, himself, was promoted to general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I was shocked when I read (about it on) the internet," Fletcher said. "It takes a lot of guts to come out and admit what he's admitting. I don't know how he could have done what he has done.

"Jacques is one of the most gracious, wonderful people I've ever met in my life. I consider it a privilege to call him a friend. He's one of the most decent people I've ever met in my life."

He just never learned to read. In school, they thought he was dyslexic and then they thought he had attention deficit disorder. He didn't complete Grade 8.

"I couldn't learn in school," Demers said. "It all started with an abusive father, an alcoholic who abused me mentally and physically. It wasn't just me. My two sisters were beaten. My mother, too. It creates a lot of anxiety. I couldn't process the information. I couldn't deal with anything.

"I kept everything inside. I was hiding. And as the years went on, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier. I felt all kinds of anxiety. Debbie (his wife of 19 years) kept telling me, you've got to get help, you've got to get help. I didn't believe in medication and I didn't believe in psychiatrists."

The book he has written now with Montreal journalist Mario Leclerc is the result of what came from those psychiatric sessions. He was urged to tell his story, urged to remove the many disguises that have been his life.

"You once called me a politician, I remember that," Demers said. "I didn't like it at the time. But I was protecting myself. I was surviving the only way I knew. I didn't want anybody disliking me. I didn't want anybody digging into my past."

In 1983, Demers shared his secret of illiteracy with the woman he later would marry. The bills were piling up in St. Louis. He asked Debbie to pay them.

"She got mad at me. She said: 'What am I, your secretary?'

"I had to tell her. I can't write $350. I could sign my name, that was it. She was stunned, but she has been extremely supportive ever since."

In Detroit, where Demers coached the Red Wings for four seasons, he relied on Colin Campbell, now executive vice-president of the NHL, to do his paper work. In Montreal, where he coached the Canadiens to their most recent Stanley Cup victory in 1993, his assistants, Jacques Laperierre and Charles Thiffault, covered for him without knowledge they were doing so. Now, he can read a little, "I'm slow. A six out of 10, maybe ...

"I have a lot of people to thank. I was carrying around a lot inside. I compensated by keeping everything in my head. I couldn't write it down. I couldn't read it. At times, it became very hectic and heavy, having all of that in your mind."

And all the while he was dancing as fast as he could.

In 1998, Art Williams, who was then owner of the Lightning, walked into Demers' office to inform him he was firing general manager Phil Esposito. Williams told Demers he wanted him to take over.

"If I told him I couldn't do the job, he would have got rid of me," Demers said. "I was never a GM and I knew I couldn't be a GM. But I took the job and the first man I hired was Jay Feaster (now the Tampa GM) and the second man I hired was Cliff Fletcher.

"Jay took care of every little bit of paperwork. Cliff handled all the day-to-day work. I went on coaching. I couldn't read a contract or a league document or anything."

"You may not have been able to read a contract," Serge Savard, the former Canadiens GM, told Demers yesterday, "but you knew how many zeroes were in the numbers."

"He found a way to compensate," Devellano said. "It's amazing what people with limitations can accomplish."

Demers' mother died at the age of 41, a victim of both leukemia and an abusive marriage. His father died three years later, at 51, having suffered a heart attack at his sister's wedding. With little education, little English, and no ability to read in either language, Demers left his job as a trucker for a coaching job in the World Hockey Association. He has been in the hockey business for more than 30 years.

"It's easy to say today that I succeeded under all this adversity and I kept this secret, but the courage and determination I had came from my mom. She made me go forward. I forgive my father for what he did to me, but I'll never forgive him for what he did to her.

"I had to get this out. I couldn't keep it inside any more. I had to get all the anger out to be able to go on with my life. I want to live the rest of my life in peace."


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