The chattiest man in hockey has been silenced, but even a major stroke suffered last April couldn’t silence Jacques Demers’ smile Wednesday night.
The 73-year-old made his first public appearance at the 26th annual Quebec Sports Hall of Fame ceremony, inducted as a coach on a night when such luminaries as swimmer Emilie Heymans, NHL star Dave Keon and goaltender Kim St-Pierre also were honoured. But for most of the 300 in attendance, there was only “Coach.”
Six months after the stroke, Demers still can only speak a few words and is dealing with some paralysis on his right side. Guy Carbonneau, his captain on that 1993 Stanley Cup-winning squad, wheeled him into the gala.
The beaming smile on Demers’ face at the first hug from longtime colleague and great friend Chantal Machabée, who covers hockey for RDS and occasionally hosts the popular post-game panel discussion in which he appeared, was that of a man so diminished physically but still so aware.
— Chantal Machabee (@ChantalMachabee) September 29, 2016
Demers, whose lifelong struggle with illiteracy came to light only a decade ago, has always been a communicator of the highest order.
“Because he was good and warm with people, because he could always find the words to console and comfort them and because he always played to win, what he’s living right now is nothing less than a personal tragedy. Maybe he couldn’t read and write during his fruitful career, but he was blessed with a gift that few people know how to use as well: his speech,” colleague and longtime Montreal hockey columnist Bertrand Raymond wrote on RDS’s website.
“He spoke to his general managers and to his players. He addressed the media. He took the time to chat with the fans. He commented on television. He opined in the Senate. His entire life has revolved around words and he no longer speaks. He has become prisoner to his body.”
It’s a testament to the genuine love and affection the Quebec hockey world has for him that the list of former Canadiens players and executives on hand for his induction reads like a Habs who’s who: Carbonneau, former president Ronald Corey, Mario Tremblay, Benoit Brunet, Yvon Lambert, Pierre Bouchard, Yvan Cournoyer, Réjean Houle … (There's some video of the ceremony here)
“Not everyone would have chosen to come in his current condition, it takes courage to do it. He’s one of the greatest at bringing people together that I’ve known in my life. He’s an extraordinary person,” Tremblay told RDS.
Demers overcame far more than illiteracy and attention-deficit disoder; his childhood at the hands of an abusive, alcoholic father who told him he would never amount to anything was traumatic. By the age of 13, he was already out of school and working menial jobs. By 20, both his parents were gone and he had three younger siblings to worry about.
“All evening long, words of love were whispered in his ear. How he would have loved to return the favour. How he would have loved to describe the immense joy he felt in being inducted. … Who in Quebec could have rolled up his sleeves and fought so fiercely and, one by one, succeed in achieving personal goals that were thought out of his grasp? Who in Quebec began delivering soft drinks and rose to the Senate, picking up a Stanley Cup along the way – in his own backyard – and two trophies declaring him the best coach in the best hockey league in the world? A single Stanley Cup has been won in Canada over the last 26 years – his,” Raymond wrote.
The stroke isn’t the only thing Demers has had to deal with, Raymond wrote. Sister Claudette, his wife Debbie’s best friend, who lives with them and has been invaluable in helping with her brother’s care, has been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer.
“This induction came at such a good time for him. He missed his old players and the friends who hadn’t yet spoken to him for fear of bothering him. He reconnected with his second family at RDS. He came to fill up on love before returning home and working on his health,” Raymond added. “He didn’t say one word all evening, but he was the most eloquent and most touching of the inductees. His joy at merely being there spoke for him.”
The prognosis, as with most strokes, is guarded. Demers can speak a little, take a few steps but at best, there's only cautious optimism that he can make more progress.
Then again, Demers has been counted out his entire life; this is just another challenge.