Demers' secret struggle with pain, shame of illiteracy

Updated: November 7, 2005, 3:21 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Jacques Demers was the king of forgetting his glasses.

During his 15-year career as one of the NHL's most flamboyant coaches, whenever someone asked him to read a document or article or fill out an NHL lineup card or sign an autograph, the longtime coach would pat his clothes and shrug his shoulders.

Jacques Demers
AP Photo/Jacques BoissinotJacques Demers coached the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in 1993, all while keeping his illiteracy a secret.

"How many times did I forget my glasses? I must have forgotten my glasses more than anyone else," Demers told ESPN.com on Thursday as he traveled from Montreal to Quebec City.

Sometimes the glasses would be close at hand, in his pocket, but hidden away from outside view.

Such was Demers' life for most of his 61 years.

The product of an abusive home in working-class Montreal, Demers dropped out of school in the eighth grade and never learned to read or write.

He hid that secret, along with the shame of his childhood abuses, away beneath a seemingly endless reservoir of enthusiasm and raw emotion.

"From Day One when he got to Montreal, he was always trying to create a family. And he was successful at it. Now I know why a little bit more," said Guy Carbonneau, the captain of the Demers-coached Montreal Canadiens team that won a Stanley Cup in 1993, the last championship in the storied franchise's history.

"He was always up and upbeat. Always trying to turn a bad situation into a good situation," said Carbonneau, now the assistant GM in Dallas.

In Detroit, where Demers became the only coach in NHL history to be named coach of the year in back-to-back seasons (1987 and 1988), he wept openly in his Joe Louis Arena office when troubled Red Wing Bob Probert was arrested with cocaine in his underwear at the Windsor/Detroit border.

Reaction to Demers' illiteracy
Demers talks about his decision to make his secret public, and others react to his news. ESPN Motion

As a Canadiens analyst with French language RDS, Demers brings that same emotion to his broadcasts.

There remains in Demers' voice that trademark vibrancy. Only now it is shot through with relief as he talks about the launch Wednesday of his book, "Jacques Demers: En Toutes Lettres" (roughly translated to "All Spelled Out"), a book written with former Montreal Canadiens beat writer Mario Leclerc of Le Journal de Montreal.

In the book, Demers reveals these once-devastating secrets for the first time, a revelation that has sent shockwaves through the tightly knit community that is the hockey world.

"I'm very relieved," Demers said. "I could not have done this [in the past] because my dream of coaching in the NHL would never have been realized."

Would his first pro GM, Maurice Filion, have hired Demers to coach the Quebec Nordiques if he knew Demers couldn't read or write?

"Never. And I couldn't have blamed him," Demers said.

It's difficult to know which part of this story is more stunning -- the fact a man could build in enough strategies and safeguards to coach 1,007 NHL games, 10th all-time, without betraying his secret or that he could keep that secret from the people closest to him, including players, GMs, friends, brothers, sisters and even children.

Adult Literacy
Jacques Demers' revelation that he is illiterate puts him in the company of a stunning number of American and Canadian adults who don't meet commonly-accepted standards of literacy.

In Demers' home country (he was born in Montreal), statistics from ABC CANADA, a national charity devoted to promoting literacy, show that 22 percent of all adult Canadians have serious problems dealing with any printed material, and an additional 24 percent of Canadians can deal only with simple reading tasks.

Literacy Survey

The National Adult Literacy Survey of 1992 measured English literacy skills in the U.S. A random sample of over 26,000 people aged 16 years and older were given commonly-encountered literacy tasks such as reading a bus schedule, using an automatic teller machine, or understanding a judge's instructions to a jury. The findings:

• Level 1: Between 21 and 23 percent of American adults (40 to 44 million people) are able to perform tasks involving "brief, uncomplicated text," such as totaling the entry on a bank deposit slip or locating information in a short news article, but many do so with difficulty. Others are unable to do so at all.

• Level 2: 25-28 percent (representing 50 million American adults) are able to locate information in a text, locate a particular intersection on a map, or determine the difference in price of two items. However, they have "considerable difficulty" carrying out tasks requiring them to use long texts or do 2-step calculations.

• Level 3: About 33 percent (or 61 million adults) could integrate information relatively easily from long texts, and perform more complicated tasks where quantities needed to be inferred from the narrative.

• Level 4 and 5: About 18-21 percent (34 to 40 million adults) could successfully complete the most challenging tasks requiring the use of long and complex texts.

SOURCE: American Literacy Council. For more information, go to http://www.americanliteracy.com.

It wasn't until Demers called his four children Wednesday that they learned what their father had endured.

His youngest, Jason 24, who lives in Indianapolis, was stunned.

"He just said, 'whoa!' And then he said he was very proud of me," Demers said.

His two younger sisters and a younger brother, who Demers cared for following the deaths of his mother and father, likewise had no knowledge until Wednesday's book launch.

To coach at the NHL level requires a vast store of energy and commitment. Add to that keeping such secrets and it's little wonder Demers appeared to be wound so tight.

"Every day it took energy," he said. "The NHL was the greatest thing I'd done in my life and I didn't want to lose that."

As for coaching, that was the easy part.

"I would always tell my players, I'm not a big X's and O's guy," Demers said.

Instead, Demers learned the game by sight and taught with words and motivation. The emotion was an obvious outlet for the psychological and physical beating he had taken as a child, his flamboyance another protective shield against the truth that was buried deep inside.

"My father told me I was a S.O.B. and that I wouldn't do anything right in my life," Demers recalled.

Although Demers' father Emile, a large man at 200 pounds, regularly beat his mother, Mignonne, a slight woman of just 105 pounds, the two stayed together, a function of the strict moral values that dominated French Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I had anxiety attacks for many years because I was a battered child," Demers said. "But I put it aside and tried to work on all the positives in my life."

As for players like Carbonneau or managers like Cliff Fletcher and Jay Feaster, whom Demers brought in to help run the Tampa Bay Lightning when he was briefly GM there in the late 1990s, Demers said the secret was easy to keep knowing the alternatives.

The hockey world is so small, he said, that if he had told just one person and they let it slip, his elaborately constructed ruse would have been destroyed in a moment.

"Someone's going to say something," Demers said.

In hindsight, Demers' plan was alarmingly simple.

When he first began coaching in the U.S. with St. Louis, if a letter needed to be written or document signed, he would explain to staff that his English wasn't so good and they would happily assist.

In Detroit, longtime public relations manager Bill Jamieson was a huge help to Demers. Later, when he returned to Montreal, he regularly had Habs trainer Eddy Palchak fill out the lineup card. An assistant would then check it for mistakes, a common practice amongst NHL coaches.

The Habs' office staff was equally helpful in sorting through duties that required Demers to either read or write.

As time went on, Demers was able to reproduce basic words, including his own name, to deal with autograph seekers, although he dreaded formal public meet-and-greet sessions that might mean requests for personalized autographs. Invariably, those requests resulted in "Best Wishes, Jacques Demers" or "Thank You, Jacques Demers" in big letters.

When Demers was the coach in Tampa Bay, his last posting, he was offered the general manager's job, as well. He took it knowing he could never perform the tasks needed and immediately hired Fletcher and Feaster, who handled all of the contractual work.

"Jay Feaster was a tremendous help without knowing it," Demers said.

Looking back, Feaster said he can recall an emotional Demers coming to his office, waving a document and asking his assistant GM what it meant. A lawyer by trade, Feaster never gave the moment a second thought until Wednesday.

"Jacques is such a wonderful guy and caring person. Jacques was great to me, he was great to my family," said Feaster, now the Lightning GM. "To hear that about his own upbringing was very sad."

Although he wasn't surprised that Demers kept such a secret, Feaster said he's pleased Demers felt comfortable enough to unburden himself.

"I think it's great that he's done it," Feaster said. "How many people will be helped as a result of what he's done?"

The only person with whom Demers shared his secret was his wife Debbie with whom he's been since 1984. She discovered her husband's secret after pestering him to help out with the household bills.

The release of the book is a relief to her, too, Demers said.

Through his wife, Demers has learned to read a little, although he still can't get through an entire article. And writing remains a significant challenge.

As for any potential backlash at revealing the details of his life, Demers expects little criticism and cares even less.

Part of the proceeds from the book, currently available only in French with an English edition set for early in 2006, will support a local battered women's shelter and literacy programs in Quebec.

Although nothing will rival winning a Stanley Cup, Demers feels the book, too, is a worthy accomplishment.

"This is me and this is how I did it," he said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like Jacques Demers. There are a lot of battered women out there. A lot of battered kids."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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