With lingering health complications from a botched surgery during the summer, former Montreal Canadiens head coach Jacques Demers admitted that if he was invited to Whitehorse for a hockey tournament “or anything else,” he would not have been here over the weekend. The Special Olympics, however, is a whole other matter.
“We can sometimes forget that there’s 90 kids here in Special Olympics, that’s a very small percentage of the population here in Whitehorse,” said Demers. “Just remember that those kids need your help, your understanding and your support. You don’t have to be a past coach in the NHL to offer your support.”
The ex-Habs coach, turn Canadian senator, was in town over the weekend, joined by senator Jim Munson and Yukon senator Dan Lang, to help raise money for the Yukon Special Olympics with the annual Senators’ Ball held Saturday, which raised over $7,500.
Perhaps the biggest thrill for some of the local athletes was having Demers, the last NHL coach to win a Stanley Cup with a Canadian team (the Montreal Canadiens in 1993), on their bench for the Senators’ Challenge, a soccer game featuring 16 Yukon Special Olympians on Friday at the Canada Games Centre.
“I actually had to go to the doctor this morning … because my second operation is still a little bit open,” said Demers. “Last week I wasn’t sure if the doctor would give me the OK to go.
“Last night there was one of the athletes that had to be walked around, but as long you gave him a ball or two to kick, he was so happy. I have nothing compared to that, I have something that is going to be OK in the next few months.”
Demers, who was visiting the territory for the first time, got familiar with the Special Olympics while coaching the Detroit Red Wings during the 1980s.
“I didn’t know much about the Special Olympics at the time, and just being at the Summer Games, going there and seeing the young men and young women, participate and show the desire to be out there – it doesn’t matter if they finish first or finish last, when they are there, they are just there to compete,” he said.
Aside from his efforts with the Special Olympics, Demers is on the forefront in the battle against illiteracy, a position he assumed after revealing he was functionally illiterate in the 2005 biography “All Spelled Out,” written by Mario Leclerc.
Although his brief stay in the Yukon did not allow for any in-depth analysis of the territory’s literacy problems, he did stress the importance of staying in school and approaching teachers when in need of extra help.
“In 2010, you can go to teachers, you can go to a principal, you can go to counsellors and say, ‘Listen, I’m jut not picking this up, I’m having a hard time with this, help me,’ and people will help you,” said Demers. “When I was going to school – I’m 66 now – the help wasn’t there as much.”
Not abandoning his illustrious past in the sport of hockey, Demers also took some time for a bit of a sit-down with local minor hockey coaches, emphasizing the importance of a supportive attitude from coaches towards their players.
“Maintaining disciplines and making sure the players have fun playing, for the younger players have to respect the game – there’s too much violence in the game today – to go out participate and give it their best,” said Demers. “Winning is not everything in minor hockey, to me, as long as you go out, you enjoy yourself and give it your best shot.”
Contact Tom Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org