Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Was Jacques Demers Voodooed?

I was recently reading on the time of Patrick Roy's run in with Mario Tremblay during the "Habs Game From Hell" back in December of 1995, and it reminded me of a very funny and totally strange anecdote involving Tremblay's predecessor at the time, Jacques Demers.

This is one little tale that I'm certain Habs fandom knows little of. It played out like an omen, completely weird when taken in the context of what occured with the Canadiens only mere weeks later.

To set it up, for starters, it occured during a historic game between the Canadiens and the Colorado Avalanche, in of all places, my hometown of Cornwall, Ontario. It was historic because it was the very first game, an exhibition, in Avalanche history.

It was being played it Cornwall, because Avs coach Marc Crawford had suggested it playing here. He had ties to the city, having played and coached junior here, also marrying a school friend from St. Lawrence High. Two seasons prior, Crawford had taken the St. Johns Maple Leafs on an extended road excursion, playing a "home game" in Cornwall, due to an arena workers strike that put the team on the road for weeks. St. Johns played the Fredericton Canadiens in town, and this Avs - Habs game was Crawford's way of saying thanks for the gate receipts and helping him rise to the NHL in record coaching time.

Those are simply events that transpired to bring the Habs to town - with Crawford and the Avalanche seemingly on the periphery of the nights excitement. I say seemingly, if one doesn't have a thing for voodoo.

The excitement was ample on many fronts. The Avs were the so called home team on this night, and there was a justifyable buzz among the four thousand strong crowd that packed the Civic Complex. A young Owen Nolan, a former Cornwall Royal still had a sizeable following in town, and was greeted with a loud ovation when introduced as a starter.

Cornwall was pretty much split down middle between Habs die hards and Leafs fans, then as today, but these were the recently skyhooked Quebec Nordiques being billed as the team to cheer for. It was a dazed look that greeted the brand spanking new Colorado jerseys - I liked them, hardly missing the fleur de lys much.

The game was a typical training camp match - no Roy, Damphousse, Sakic or Forsberg to cheer on. Rookies made up a sizeable chunk of both rosters. It was go Recchi! Go Mats Sundin!

Even the Habs coach, Jacques Demers didn't partake. Assistant Charles Thiffault ran the bench for this pre-season run through. A thought crossed - could he have been fired and I'd not heard about it? The Canadiens did miss the playoffs in 1994-95, a first in 25 years - who knows?

Nah! Everyone would be talking about it, I rationed.

The game started, and Colorado soon stormed out to a quick lead as Montreal seemed to have little cohesion. Midway in the game, it was 4-1 Avs, but the Habs came back to win it 6-5.

During the first intermission, an acquaintance walking the arena halls mentioned that he'd seen Serge Savard and Pierre Lacroix chatting on the overhead firewalk somewhere. I hadn't seen any famous faces, and was disappointed that the press box behind me was filled with unfamiliar ones.

I was sitting in the last row at the top of the stands, only able to see the heads of those sitting there. I hadn't looked behind until the second period, when that same acquaintance, who was sitting three rows below me yelled out my name and pointed over my head.

I turned back expecting to see Savard, but I was stunned to see Demers, hands and fingers cupped as if praying, literally breathing down my neck from the box.

"Bonjours, Jacques", was all this surprised fan could muster.

"Salut, mon ami", came the genteel coaches reply.

As the game was on, and the Habs were mounting a comeback, I figured I'd wait a few minutes for the second intermission and strike up a conversion.

My first question was going to be, "Jacques, can I see your Stanley Cup ring?"

Other questions running through my mind would have been, "Can I try it on, can I keep it, and can I run fast enough past security without being slammed into Complex's concrete walls?"

Demers seemed jovial, and in good spirits - the Habs had just tied the game!

Great, I thought. He'll be chatty!

As the seconds ticked down at the periods end, a scrum of autograph seekers beat me to the coach. He'd moved to the right of me a few feet, and I was in the second seat from the aisle, unable to move freely towards him.

One after the other, upraised arms were thrust towards the coach, scraps of paper in hand for autograph seekers. There were possibly a quick dozen fans sardine-canned into a slight opening awaiting this little brush with fame. One prepared fan even had a Pro Set card of Demers ready for the scribbling. As I was noticing that, came a loud bellow from Demers' chest.

He was roaring!

"Where'd you get that?", I heard him ask.

"I made it", said a man in his thirties.

"That's so funny...I don't know what to say!", he said, enlightened, "I've never seen anything like that!"

There was a little shoving to see what the commotion was, when Demers grabbed the item and hoisted it, saying "Boys, look at this!"

Then I saw it. A foot from my eyes - a woodcarved Montreal Canadiens casket with Demers resting horizontally inside. The detail, from the rimmed glasses to the moustache, was incredibly accurate. Draped with a Habs logo, and red, white, and blue trim, it was about 10 inches long and maybe four wide and high. Demers couldn't take his eyes off it!

Laughter shrouded the group, and the coach was just silly over the sight of it.

He leaned right into the casket's creator, quizzing his motives. It's not everyday one gets a glimpse of oneself, resting in peace!

The creator explained it, and as best as I could make out, the idea behind it was a friendly lark from a Leafs fan to the coach.

Demers erupted with laughter again, when the sculpter suggested...."figured a coach who misses the playoffs in Montreal is as good as dead".

The coach put everybody in stiches once more, saying, "the worst part is I want to keep it!"
"You can", said the owner, "I made it for you!"

"But I couldn't possibly, you must have put so much work into it", the coach graciously offered, looking around nervously at those laughing with him, some at him.

"But I want you to have it, I have a second one I made, but this one was the better one. It's for you!"

Demers shook his head, still disbelieving. "It's okay then?", he said, bemused.

"Yes, yes. Keep it!"

With that, the coaches arm lunged out in handshake gesture, in what I have to say what the oddest meeting I'd ever witnessed between the Habs and Leafs nations.

Just steps away from Demers, giggling as if his shoulders were in a perpetual rumbleseat on a gravel road, was one Mario Tremblay, on hand as a radio color man that night.

I managed a Demers autograph on a scrap on a program insert. Sadly, it has gone misplaced for years now. I didn't get to say more than "thanks" amidst all the commotion and hilarity going on.

I've thought quite alot about that casket moment in the decade plus since it happened. It seems so voodooish looking back on it.

Was the gift a curse? I don't believe in that stuff much, but it sure seems crazy when one considers that many partipants in that evening game were displacing in a major way before the hockey season was out.

Demers would lose his first five starts with the Canadiens that season. He would be fired along with the GM who refused to axe him a month into the year. He would be replaced, of course, by Tremblay, who was almost in tears as Demers accepted the "gift".

Inevitably, Demers moving on trickled down to the Patrick Roy trading, two months later. That debacle would seal this casket moment in infamy, for me. I often wonder what Demers did with what the thing. Does he even remember receiving it. I'd love to know!


Anonymous said...

Nice story, Robert L. I visit your site from HIO quite often. You have lots of great anecdotes. Keep it up.

Bryan said...

cornwall eh? i grew up in the winchester/chesterville/morewood area. my parents now live close to kemptville.

Robert L said...

Thanks G-Man - always nice to hear of return visitors enjoying the site. I'm almost out of anecdotes that involve me but I've always an eye open for good and funny stuff.

BTW G-Man, did you get that name from the Bruce Springsteen classic "Spirit In The Night?"

The line is "Along came Wild Billy with his friend G-Man, all duded up for Saturday night."

If the Boss is writing about you, I want the whole story!

Bryan, I spent parts of three summers in Winchester. I worked for the Municipal building, painting the hall upstairs; refurbished the room above the OPP station on Main, and worked at the Arena at the other end of the road, just off HWY 31. I remember a bunch of pictures and trophies honouring Terry Carkner there. One of the oldtimers that worked there had every Hockey News ever published. I spent the whole summer trying to get a price out of him, but he couldn't decide what it was worth!

A decade later, I was going to buy into a Mac's franchise in Morrisburg, and I did my training at the Mac's across from the Municipal building and the school. When I was upstairs at the OPP, they hauled a pot crop in and stuffed it all into the garage on the west side. I never saw such a big stash in all my life!

All good memories and nice folks in Chesterville. Almost applied there again, at the cheese factory. I've just left the Kraft plant in Ingleside for a better life!

Are you still around those parts?

Bryan said...

nah i'm out in Cowtown now. on an adventure. i'll be buying a flames 6 pack soon with a friend to get me through the season. i watch pretty much every game still though on RDS.

small world eh. if you head west out of winchester past the arena and to the intersection, go straight through the next 4(i think) intersections until it becomes a dead end road and you literally can't go straight anymore, that's where my parents live now. about 5 kilometers from South Mountain. And my mom has been a teacher at Inkerman Public for about a decade or so now. maybe more.