Jacques Demers: A Coaching Legend
(Originally Published on May 4, 2014)
Preface to Jacques Demers: A Coaching Legend
I had the pleasure of hearing Jacques Demers speak at the NBTA Council Day in Miramichi in 2013.
The coaching legend’s passion, honesty and transparency surrounding literacy was truly extraordinary.
I was able to meet and talk to Jacques after his presentation that day, a day that I will never soon forget.
Jacques Demers: A Coaching Legend
Jacques Demers faced severe adversity throughout his childhood and his message was poignant and reinforced the role of teachers in our society. Jacques’ heartfelt and genuine message was truly inspiring. His ability to describe his troubled childhood and subsequent loss of his mother and father was chilling.
Demers grew up with an abusive alcoholic father who also passed away some two years after his mother who was his “hero”. Demers had forgiven his father for his abusive past, but in some strange way Demers would channel the adversity he faced to create a “bullet proof” character and integrity.
Demers stayed at home and took care of his ailing mother while she was battling cancer. At the tender age of sixteen Demers’ mother would succumb to the horrible disease.
During this time Demers’ education was taking a hit and he had several gaps in his learning especially in literacy.
To provide and actually protect his younger sisters from the same abuse that his mother and him had been exposed to he dropped out of school for good.
Far too many times as coaches and teachers we automatically assume, judge and blame students/players for their actions or behaviours not fully knowing what is happening in their lives outside of the school environment.
Demers’ stressed and emphasized the role of teachers in our society and for those in the profession never to give up and stay strong in a profession that is always being criticized and under the microscope.
Demers’ skill set and foundation of his coaching philosophy can be directly correlated to his willingness to face adversity and overcome. At 18 years of age Demers would find himself alone and being the eldest in his family he was now faced with “adult problems”. Several times in my teaching career, I’ve seen firsthand students that are experiencing “adult problems” while they haven’t reached their 17 or 18th birthdays. Demers now found himself trying to find a job just to get survive.
Demers’ inability to read and write and subsequent learning gaps would come back to haunt him in the search for a good paying position. Demers not wanting to lie about his illiteracy went to a human resources officer and plead his case saying that he had dyslexia and that filling out any subsequent paper would restrict his chances at getting his licence which he needed to actually find work at Coca Cola.
At $68 a week Demers finally had a job and started to get more involved in the community and would try to give back to the sport which had taught him so much as a child and started to coach minor hockey in Quebec. Demers had humble beginnings in the game of hockey and honed his skills in minor hockey before making the jump to coaching Jr. A. Demers was the first to admit that he never played Jr. hockey but did in fact play some Sr. Hockey in Quebec. Jacques would face the normal challenges of minor hockey coaches and found himself being bombarded by critical parents early on his career.
In typical Demers fashion brutally honest and straight to the point he emphasized to parents during a meeting that he in fact was the coach and that he was just trying to get the best out of his team. The critics would follow Demers at every turn of his career especially early on in his career.
Demers was actually approached by Marcel Pronovost, who was then working in the outlaw league known as the WHA. Pronovost would be the first person who actually believed in Demers and trusted him enough to provide him with a chance to coach professional hockey.
Demers had been employed by Coca Cola for the better part of ten years approached the corporation asking them to grant him a leave of absence just for one season. The representatives from quickly replied denying any leave. At a crossroads, Demers who by this time was callused by adversity knew that his opportunity was ever present. Demers described it in his coaching terms “I always told my players, when opportunity presents itself or the door is open in front of you, you walk through the door, because it may not be open for you ever again”.
From a troubled abusive past this man definitely walked through the coaching door and never looked back. Demers continues to speak to at risk youth in prisons and focuses his attention on the promotion of literacy and is no stranger to schools all across Canada. He admitted that some people still remind him of his past.
At a alumni fundraiser, Demers found himself reading the line up to All-Stars that were taking on the Habs alumni team at the Bell Center. Demers’ tone quickly changed while telling this story, he had said that a Hall of Famer interrupted him while reading the line up card and said ‘wait Jacques I read your book, I thought you couldn’t read’.
This Hall of Famer was greeted by blank stares from the other 19 players in the room. Demers admitted that comment in particular was meant to be a joke, but was quick to remind a room of teachers that these types of comments cut deep. Demers wouldn’t indulge the name of the player because of his integrity and class.
Demers wasn’t the most eloquent or rehearsed speaker that I’ve ever heard, but the emotional account of the obstacles he faced and his career was truly from the heart and inspiring.
His emotions were raw and by the end of this speech Demers was fighting back tears urging the people in that auditorium to be true to themselves and to stay strong in a profession much like coaching that always has its share of critics.
I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of current and former coaches and players in the NHL, but Jacques Demers’ autograph will be one that I will cherish forever.