MONTREAL – Just five years ago, ex-hockey coach Jacques Demers was being actively courted by the Conservatives, but was so terrified by the thought of entering the political arena that he quickly bowed out.
He later admitted the source of his fear.
“Imagine a politician who can’t read or write!” Demers told the New York Times in a 2005 profile after he broke decades of silence and admitted he was functionally illiterate.
But now the affable hockey man is headed to Ottawa. He hopes his improbable life story – that of a rough upbringing, NHL glory, illiteracy struggles, and now a Conservative senator – can inspire others.
Demers was appointed to a seat in the Senate amid a slew of patronage appointments Thursday where Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuffed the upper chamber with his closest Conservative buddies.
The nine new senators include the president of the Conservative party, Don Plett; the party’s campaign chair Doug Finley; and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, one of Harper’s most loyal longtime staffers.
But all those appointments were overshadowed by news that a jovial, jocular, Stanley Cup-winning, and until recently illiterate, hockey coach was going to Parliament Hill.
Demers himself seemed surprised to get the call.
“I never saw myself doing this,” Demers told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
“Politics has never been something that has honestly interested me.”
But the 65-year-old is honoured by the nomination and plans to be fully prepared to take on the role.
“I’ve succeeded at things in life that lots of people didn’t think I could do,” said Demers, who works as a hockey analyst RDS sports network.
“This is another big challenge … and I’m convinced I will succeed.”
News of Demers’ addition was greeted with cheers in the hockey world.
“I think it’s fabulous. Jacques is such a passionate person – not just about hockey, but life in general,” said Steve Yzerman, a retired star centreman whom Demers named captain in 1986.
“Jacques is a good politician. He has a great rapport with people, he’s a passionate guy and when he believes in something, he’ll fight hard for it.”
Demers revealed that he was contacted by Harper’s entourage on July 13 and asked if he’d be interested in a Senate seat. He agreed, and said his story could serve as a lesson to others.
Even before being officially named, Demers was already playing the part of Conservative caucus member. Seated in the front row of a Quebec City crowd to hear the prime minister speak Thursday, Demers leapt to his feet before anybody else in the audience and applauded the new boss with vigor.
He is the last man to coach a Canadian team to the Stanley Cup. He achieved the feat in his first year behind the Montreal Canadiens’ bench in 1993.
That victory, and the Senate appointment, represent two moments of triumph after a youth marked by tragedy.
He was born into poverty in a home with a violent, alcoholic father who beat his mother regularly and verbally abused him so often – calling him “stupid” and “dumb,” according to his memoirs – that he dropped out of school after the 8th grade and worked as a soft-drink truck driver.
Demers’ mother died of leukemia when he was 18. His father, who never won the battle with the bottle, died three years later of a heart attack.
It took him nearly another half-century to learn to read. He dropped the bombshell revelation in 2005, when he declared he could only write his own name and a few other words.
In November of that year, Demers released a biography, written by journalist Mario LeClerc, in which he revealed that he was functionally illiterate and had to hide it throughout his life.
He would hire assistants to read hockey contracts when he was a general manager. He pretended to read notes when he was a TV commentator.
He also described the various ploys he used to hide his illiteracy from his wife, like pretending to be busy when bills would arrive in the mail and asking her to look after them.
Demers only revealed his secret to his four children the night before his biography came out. Throughout their childhood, he stressed the value of an education.
He developed two sides, he said, one that guarded his dark secret and the other was the cheerful, backslapping type everyone else knew.
Because of his celebrity status, Demers became an inspiration for many suffering the same affliction.
In a 2007 interview with The Canadian Press, Demers said he was buoyed by the fact that other people were coming forward because of his example.
“We’re all scared to express ourselves because, if we do, we’re all scared of the backlash,” Demers said.
Demers also coached in Quebec City, St. Louis, Detroit and Tampa Bay.
He racked up 409 wins, 467 losses and 130 ties as a coach, despite never having played the game professionally.
He is the only coach to win the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year in consecutive years, having done so in 1987 and 1988.
He also coached the team that won the most consecutive overtimes games in playoff history, when the Canadiens rode a wave of 10 extra-time nailbiters to capture Lord Stanley’s cup.
In recent years, Demers has been a fixture on hockey broadcasts in Quebec as a mild-mannered expert who rarely gets too negative while offering his two cents on the Habs.
Maryse Perreault of Quebec’s Literacy Foundation, who worked closely with Demers throughout what she described as his “courageous” admission, said she hoped politics wouldn’t lead him astray from his gentlemanly roots.
“I think he is a man of conviction and I think he will bring a new era to the Senate,” Perreault said.
-with files from Chris Johnston in Calgary.