What is that curious noise coming from Joe Louis Arena? That plopping? And who is this Jacques Demers, who has all the gourmet fish shops in Detroit calling their wholesalers for a supply of octopuses?
It all harks back to the '50s. Back then, the Red Wings were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, and when playoff time rolled around, Detroit fans would interrupt games at Olympia Stadium by lobbing an occasional octopus onto the ice. Plop. It was good luck, they figured; each tentacle stood for one of the playoff victories needed to win the Cup (8 then, 16 nowadays). It worked in '55 but not since. Over the intervening decades the Red Wings stopped earning playoff berths, even as the NHL grew less particular about who got them. Flying octopuses went out of fashion.
But now the team has been rejuvenated by Demers, a bespectacled French-Canadian extrovert and self-made coaching genius, and is threatening to cause a run on tentacled invertebrates. At week's end the Wings had won four of their last six games, and they were five points in front of their closest Norris Division rival with a 30-28-9 record. This from a team that was the worst of all 21 teams in the league last season.
Last week the 42-year-old Demers, whose command of English allows for an occasional malaprop, reflected on his startling success: "Everyone said, 'When he gets to Detroit, he's going to take a landslide.' But I think I have done a commandable job with this team." He calls them "my pesky Red Wings."
The tight-checking Peskies, who have 33 more points than they had at the same time last season, are the NHL's most improved club. Meanwhile the St. Louis Blues, whom Demers left in a blaze of acrimony last summer, are nine points behind their '86 pace. One man, it seems, can make a difference.
Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, boss of the Little Caesars Pizza chain, had begun the 1985-86 season by lavishing a cool $6.75 million on the so-called Dough Boys, eight free agents who were supposed to lead Detroit to the promised land. The Bros. Dough turned out to be a bust to rival the Edsel. The Red Wings hit rock bottom in almost every one of the NHL's major statistical categories: winning the fewest games (17); scoring the fewest goals (266); and—completing the hat trick—giving up the most (415, second-most in NHL history). So Ilitch decided to hire a new coach. He had tried three in 1985-86: Harry Neale, Brad Park and Dan Belisle, who spelled Park while he served a three-game suspension for ordering his players to fight.
"Four hundred and fifteen goals," said Demers recently when reminded of last season's Red Wings. "That shows a lack of discipline." That's anathema to Demers. But whether he is taking his customary shot of Maalox before a game or flipping lazy wrist shots and cracking jokes while skating with his players in practice, Demers appears to be more teddy than bear. Sometimes, though, appearances deceive.
Early this season, after a 6-0 loss in Toronto, Demers canceled everyone's Sunday off-day plans. Together they endured a six-hour film festival of their follies. The next day he had the red-eyed Wings report for duty at 7 a.m., skated them for four hours and then had them lift weights and attend meetings before letting them go at 5 p.m.
Demers seems to relish the recounting. What he doesn't talk about is that he had threatened the team with three such grueling days. "He was too nice a guy to go through with it," says winger Gerard Gallant, laughing. "It was hurting him as much as it hurt us."
Demers and the Red Wings also have been exceptionally patient and understanding with left wing Bob Probert, who entered a Windsor, Ont., hospital on Feb. 11 to be treated for alcoholism. Probert returned to Joe Louis Arena last week for the first time since he began the work-release phase of the program. The 9-3 rout of Minnesota was a victory within a victory; Detroit's second goal came on a penalty shot by Probert.
A prince of a guy, this Demers? You bet. Maybe even a pushover? Wel-1-1-1. Ask rookie center Joe Murphy. First, Murphy missed curfew and then a team flight. Demers responded by sending the No. 1 pick in last year's draft to Adirondack. Or ask Warren Young, Doug Shedden, Lee Norwood, John Ogrodnick—veterans who have been demoted or traded this year. "He demands the maximum effort," says Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman. "If you give it, you're fine. If you don't, you pay."
Petr Klima, whose defection from Czechoslovakia in August 1985 the Red Wings helped engineer, almost paid. He is a dazzling offensive talent, but his lackluster play at the other end of the ice was hurting Detroit. "Jacques and I had a talk," says Klima. Forward Joey Kocur amends that to, "Jacques had a talk. Petr had a listen."
Klima got the message. Since then he has been among the peskiest of Red Wings, who now rank ninth in the league in goals allowed with 234. "I score and backcheck," said Klima, who scored the third hat trick of his career, against Boston last week. "He's happy, I'm happy." Even Kocur, who had 377 penalty minutes in 1985-86—congratulations, Joey, you were the one Red Wing who led the NHL in something last season—has cleaned up his act and is going to the net more. He, too, has learned that one-dimensional players don't last on Demers's teams.
"These guys forget this is the greatest job in the world," says Demers, recalling that dawn-till-dusk boot camp of last fall. "I wanted them to know what the blue collars do. We show up at 9:30 for an 11:15 stretch, then leave at 2:00 in the afternoon. Everything's relaxed, everything's cool. There's no traffic, just beautiful highways. I want to show them the other side of the world."
Demers was born into that other side, in East Montreal in 1944. His father, Emile, was a butcher who moonlighted as a janitor. When Jacques was 16, his mother, Mignonne, died of leukemia. Less than two years later, while Jacques was taking his father for a Sunday drive in the family car, a convertible, Emile fell over sideways into Jacques' lap, dead of a heart attack.
Demers quit high school, drove a truck to support his brother and two sisters and went to an IBM training school. In his off hours he coached youth hockey teams. "I would tell people that I would eventually coach in the NHL," he says. "They would look at me sideways."
In 1972 Demers jumped from coach of Outremont, a Montreal junior league team, to the WHA Chicago Cougars as a scout. He was the Cougars' head coach within a year. From there it was on to head jobs in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and in 1978, Quebec. A year later Quebec was absorbed into the NHL, and at age 34, Demers had realized his dream of becoming an NHL head coach. A year later he was dismissed. But he stayed within the Quebec organization as coach and director of player personnel for the AHL Fredericton Express.
The bigs beckoned again in 1983, and Demers left the Express to coach St. Louis. "We had some success," he says of his days with the Blues. As he talks, Demers glances at his listener to see if the understatement has been recognized as such. The lowest-paid coach (an estimated $75,000 a year) in the NHL takes one of its less talented teams to within a goal of the 1986 Stanley Cup finals. We had some success. Right. And Lee Iacocca has a bit of business sense.
How unassuming is Demers? He had second thoughts about buying a Mercedes after the Red Wings made him a millionaire. "Jacques is only good at buying things for other people," says his wife, Debbie, whom he met in Frederic-ton. "He doesn't like to buy for himself."
The Blues, however, found the limits of Demers's selflessness. During the Campbell Conference championships last year, St. Louis owner Harry Ornest was boasting in a Calgary restaurant that he had the league's best coach but was paying him the least. "It got back to me," says Demers, who confronted Ornest. "He denied it, but the person who told me was not lying. I know it was said."
After the season, Demers was a candidate for Coach of the Year, as he is again. He hoped the Blues would buy a table and join him at the NHL awards banquet in Toronto. No go. "They found out the day before the awards that I wasn't going to win," says Demers. "So nobody came." Demers and Debbie sat with strangers. Humiliated, he called his agent, Art Kaminsky, and told him to "go ahead with Detroit."
"I can't believe we got him," Ilitch told reporters after signing Demers to a five-year, $1.1 million contract. "Last year my wife asked me, 'Who's the best coach?' I said, 'Jacques Demers.' "
Demers pretends not to understand all the fuss. "Whether it is driving a Coke truck or coaching an NHL team, I give it my best shot," he says.
Right now it's about two o'clock in the afternoon of Demers's career. Everything is relaxed, everything is cool. There's no traffic, just beautiful highways. And octopuses flying overhead.