NHL Coaching Legend Goes Behind the Bench For Literacy

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NHL coaching legend Jacques Demers may have officially retired from the game of hockey, but he hasn't stopped coaching. If anything, he's more committed than ever, and his season has no end.

The venues are no longer big city arenas, however, and the players are no longer a group of 25 celebrity athletes. The players that Demers now coaches are regular people, typical of what you would find in any Canadian town, except that they all have one thing in common. They are all among the 40 percent of Canadian adults, including approximately one million British Columbians, who lack the literacy skills to read a newspaper or fill out a job application.

Thanks to 2010 Legacies Now and the Province of British Columbia, the two-time NHL Coach-of-the-Year conducted a road trip through BC, during which he bared his soul, his troubled youth and his long journey in coming to terms with being functionally illiterate.

"Don't give up on yourself, and don't let anybody make you feel stupid," was the coaching mantra he offered up to crowds in Vancouver, Prince George and Nanaimo.

Being constantly made to "feel stupid" is how Demers described growing up in a rough neighbourhood near downtown Montreal. He told hushed audiences about wanting to be an altar boy, but being rebuked by the Catholic brothers, who told him in no uncertain terms that he was not smart enough. His troubled state and feelings of failure resulted in him quitting school in Grade 8 and finding confidence on the ice, and later behind the bench of five NHL teams.

Astonishingly, he kept his plight a secret throughout his NHL career, a secret to everyone, that is, except his wife Debbie. After living together for an entire year, he broke down and confessed to her that he couldn't pay the household bills because he couldn't write a cheque. Fearing that his NHL coaching career would be over if anyone found out, his wife agreed to help him keep his secret. It's a secret he doesn't think he could keep today.

"I wouldn't be able to hide today," he says, mostly because of the preponderance of computers and email, neither of which he has ever used. "I couldn't ask for help either. It's different today. If you're having problems, there is more help than ever."

Literacy advocates across Canada have praised Demers, who revealed all in his 1995 biography All Spelled Out, for his courage and for helping them in their efforts to raise awareness about literacy challenges faced by so many adult Canadians.

"Bringing the literacy issue out of the darkness has not been easy," says Brenda Le Clair, a literacy specialist and executive director of community engagement for 2010 Legacies Now. "There is no doubt that having a famous sport figure with the courage to tell his story and go to such lengths to encourage others to seek help is a tremendous boost to literacy organizations throughout Canada."

Following each of Demers' speeches, Le Clair accompanied him in a panel discussion and question period, during which time a handful of audience members shared similarly moving experiences and thanked him for helping them to understand that there is both hope and help. On at least one occasion, an audience member's similar confession appeared to leave him speechless, offering nothing in response except a hug - the same kind he has given countless times to professional hockey players after a big win.

The audience applauded in response. After all, a big win is precisely what it was.

Literacy Now Communities guides communities through a planning process to identify and address local literacy needs. The program is supported by the Province of BC