Thursday, November 03, 2005

Stanley Cup winning coach reveals he is illiterate

Jacques Demers, now retired after achieving great success as a coach in the National Hockey League, has just revealed that he is illiterate. He managed to hide the fact from his colleagues and even from his children until now.

demersDemers coached more than 1,000 games in the NHL; he won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year twice; and he capped off his career by guiding the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993.

The story is very moving. Demers' father, who was an alcoholic, physically abused him. CanWest News Services quotes Demers:
"My young life was so negative, I developed a positive side to hide everything from people. By not telling people what my Dad was doing to my mom and me, I developed a positive side to hide the ugly truth.

"It was my way of surviving, but I developed anxiety," said Demers, who eventually sought professional help to deal with his personal torment.

"Going to a doctor two years ago helped me understand that when your father says, 'You're a no-good SOB,' you don't go to sleep at night and you can't function or learn at school."
In the 1960s, Demers assumed responsibility for three younger siblings when his parents died a few years apart. He was only sixteen when his Mom died.

A new biography reveals Demers' secret for the first time:
In Jacques Demers:  Toutes En Lettres, a biography written by Mario Leclerc of Le Journal de Montreal and released yesterday, the 61-year-old former Canadiens coach divulges that he never learned to adequately read or write, and shrewdly masked his embarrassing deficiency by getting others to do his paperwork. …

"Everywhere I went, in Detroit or St. Louis, the trainers or someone would always fill out the lineup without knowing my secret," Demers said yesterday.

"I would always tell them, 'You're the best, you know who's playing, you know the sweater numbers in the room.' Eddy [Palchak, the Canadiens trainer] did it for me every single game here and then I'd have an assistant coach look it over.

"No one ever knew my secret but my wife Debbie. In 1984, we were sitting in our kitchen in St. Louis and I asked her to pay some bills. She finally said, 'Look, I'm not your damn secretary.' So I had to tell her and we both kept it a very dark secret.
Even then, Demers continued to hide his illiteracy from his children. According to the Globe and Mail, he told the eldest of his four children only on Tuesday. As of yesterday afternoon, he still had not told the others, who live in the USA.

Demers feared exposure throughout his coaching career and even later, when he became a television commentator for a Francophone TV station:
"Nobody can ever hurt me again. Nobody can fire me now," he said in an interview yesterday.

"But for all those years, I always had at the back of my mind that I could be fired, I could be embarrassed, I could be humiliated.

"I coached five teams, and there's no way the National Hockey League would have given me a chance.

"There's no way they were going to hire someone who says he's an illiterate." …

Former Canadiens star Serge Savard said he only found out the truth about Mr. Demers at the end of their time together with the Montreal Canadiens, in the 1990s.

"He fooled everyone," Mr. Savard said. "He always had notes with him and he looked like he was writing something."
Demers says he learned his survival skills from his mother, who also endured bloodied beatings at the hand of her husband.

When his Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, Demers thought of his Mom. "She was my hero and would have been very proud of me."

Demers plans to donate 60 cents from each sale of the book to Le Chainon, a Montreal shelter for battered women.


At 1:43 PM, November 03, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Wow ! I will have to get the book! It is amazing how he could succeed as well as he did without learning to read. I suspect that his illiteracy was from a learning disability. If you have the drive to be the top of your profession, then learning to read and write, shouldn't have been that big a hurdle. Perhaps his thinking was more spatial and or strategic. Then again it is hard to understand such a life from the outside. I guess I will have to get the book.

At 5:17 PM, November 03, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

Good topic. I love hearing about overcoming adversity. That story reminded me why I read certain blogs...they often instill hope.

At 9:54 PM, November 03, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

What a survivor! He survived his father's abuse, he rose to the top of his profession, and he hid his illiteracy with consummate skill. Amazing. Sad, though, that he felt compelled to hide it even from his family, who might have offered him support and encouragement. Will his children read the book to him, I wonder, now that they know?

At 9:00 AM, November 04, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Bill:
It appears that the biggest hurdle he faced was within himself. I get the impression that he was deeply ashamed of not being able to read and write. To succeed despite his internal struggles is really something.

And he might have been right to fear exposure. Who knows how others would have reacted if they had found out? Although, once he had proven what a good coach he was, I have to think no one would care.

The story also illustrates that literacy and intelligence do not necessarily go hand in hand. His childhood trauma blocked him from learning. But he must be very intelligent to coach a professional team successfully.

• Carolyn:
I agree, I find this story really inspiring!

• Mary P.
I can picture that scene between him and his wife. Why would he hide his illiteracy from her, except that he was afraid he would go down in her estimation if he admitted it? Meanwhile, she's finding fault with him for leaving the bookwork up to her. So finally he's compelled to 'fess up — with intense fear and relief, I'm sure.


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