Because I teach literacy and basic skills with the Thames Valley District School Board, I was asked to attend Facing Off With Literacy, an evening headlined by guest speaker (and former Cup winner) Jacques Demers. Many of you probably remember that in 2005, Demers revealed to the world that he was functionally illiterate, that he was set to begin rectifying that situation, and also that he wanted to address literacy in a more public way. On Thursday night, he opened up to a room of nearly 450 people at the London Convention Center, and spoke passionately to raise support and finances for literacy programs. Leafs-Habs rivalry notwithstading, I have to say that it’s a noble thing he’s chosen to do.
Demers explained that he was the son of an alcoholic and abusive father. He described night after night of insomnia, knowing that several hours after he was sent to bed, he would be forced to listen to screaming and physical fighting in the room beside his. The family was very poor, and often the children had to help their father (who was a janitor) do extra work just to make ends meet. It’s understandable then, that Demers was terrified of his father for much of his life, and he explains that while he was at school, he was often too angry to focus or behave comme il faut.
While at school, Demers was the subject of ridicule, and he still bears emotional scars from being publicly mocked and humiliated for his academic struggles, which only compounded the problems he faced to get back on track.
Sitting next to his mother while she was on her deathbed was a life-changing moment for Demers. Naturally, he had always been closest with his mother, as she was a constant sign of hope and love in an otherwise horriffic childhood. In her final minutes, she told him that she wanted to be proud of him. He promised her then and there that she would be.
It was near the beginning of Demers’ second marriage that he decided to commit to learning how to properly read and write. He had just married his former secretary, and while he was away on road trips coaching hockey, he had hoped and expected that she would take care of any bills that came in. When he returned home one day to find a pile of unpaid bills, he asked why his wife why she never bothered to pay them. "I’m not your secretary anymore!", she exclaimed, and, out of anger, he threw them all on the floor. "They’ll be here a while, I guess, because I can’t read them or write any cheques to pay them!", he responded. After a stunned silence, he had to explain to his (relatively new) wife that he was illiterate. She committed to helping him through school, and stuck with him. They have now been married for 29 years.
These days, Demers speaks out against bullying in school, substance abuse, teen suicide and pregnancy rates, makes regular visits to jails, and makes connections between the personal issues he had as a boy with the societal problems he sees plaguing certain students today.
He also spoke out against the treatment of women by many of his players – and here, he emphasized the players in Junior in particular – because unplanned pregnancies lead to so many students dropping out of school. Now a father and a grandfather with young girls, this issue seems to resonate with him in a way it never used to.
Demers often stressed the responsibility that individuals carry for their own fates, but added that we can always do more as a society to change the fate of so many that slip between the cracks in the current Quebec (and other provincial) educational system(s). He offered a coaching analogy to explain his point: he recognizes that a team can’t win regularly without their star players, but he always emphasized the importance of his fourth line forwards as well – and made it clear to them how important they were. Although first and fourth line players have markedly different jobs to do, it is equally critical that they all do them perfectly to succeed. Just as people who play on the 4th line are necessary to win, people who work to get back on the education wagon are important for their communities to flourish.
When asked about his own coping mechanisms and the ways he managed to avoid being discovered as illiterate, he went back to his days as an ostricized schoolboy. Demers is, and always has been, a self-ascribed "loner", and often distanced himself from people before they could learn much about him. With people in the NHL, he found that his great sense of humor often allowed him to talk himself out of tight situations. Once he was a head coach, delegating tasks became his go-to method of avoiding reading or writing in front of anyone. He managed to memorize specific words for the sake of signing autographs, "best wishes" and "all the best" being two favorites.
Demers poses with two students.
Two More Questions
I caught up with Demers briefly – very briefly – and asked him whether or not issues with literacy changed the way he approached coaching. He explained that he "had to be more patient" explaining things to players, to make sure that they were very clear on what he was trying to say. He also used "coaches that were … strong[er], technically", so that he could focus on being "more of a motivator, someone who brought the players to play together, team concept. That’s all I got."
As an aside, this speaks volumes about how recent a phenomenon using advnaced statistics is. Demers twice won the Jack Adams’ Award as the coach of the year (albeit in the late 80’s), but clearly would have been incapable of discussing not only specific tactical information, but definitely any kind of math.
My second question to Demers pertained to literacy as a more general issue in the NHL. I have often wondered about difficulties that NHLers face after retiring. It’s hard for most people to feel sorry for anyone that has earned much money doing something like hockey, but I rather suspect that there are still players – although they may have graduated high school – that probably don’t have great sense with money, probably still can’t read or write very well, and lack many important life skills. Certainly, it’s unlikely that many players (especially those going through the NCAA system) would have to face the same level of issues that Demers’ faced, but he was adamant:
"I don’t think that there is [a problem with literacy], there was maybe, at one time, but I don’t think there is today, because the kids in college, the kids in junior major, they have to go to school. That’s a new rule now."
Perhaps I’m alone on this one, but although I was vaguely aware that there were awards and scholarships given out to players in the CHL that did reasonably well in school, I had no idea that school was mandatory. That’s really good to hear, as many of these players will one day have to find careers outside of hockey one day.