“Ilitch shanghaied Demers from St. Louis, causing some rancor and ill will. But Ilitch didn’t much care about whether he ruffled the Blues’ feathers. He had himself a disaster in Detroit, and needed relief NOW.”
The last time the Red Wings failed to qualify for the playoffs, we were in the midst of President Bush I and the “Bad Boy” Pistons had only won one championship and Dennis Rodman wasn’t weird yet.
We hadn’t quite shaken off the after effects of the 1980s. Miley Cyrus’s dad wasn’t even popular yet. No one had heard of Bill Clinton, outside his home state of Arkansas.
It may seem like ancient history to some, but there was actually a time where we didn’t expect the Red Wings to be in the thick of things when it came to the Stanley Cup playoffs. A time where a first round exit or even a conference final failure wasn’t cause for heightened security around the Ambassador Bridge or a spike in the sale of razor blades.
Or before Detroit goalies did things like cry in front of their locker (Chris Osgood, 1994) or publicly declare suicidal feelings (Manny Legace, 2006).
I’ll end your suspense: it was 1990.
It sometimes gets boring, writing about the Red Wings and their nearly twenty-year reign as the most successful franchise in hockey. We keyboard mashers and the quote-unquote experts wearing headsets and jabbering into microphones think it much more interesting when the teams we cover, founder.
So it was 1990 when the Red Wings couldn’t manage even a fourth place finish in their division, thus finding themselves on the outside looking in when the playoff party began.
A couple months later, the bespectacled French-Canadian coach spoke in tears to the media.
“Mr. Ilitch and I both had a good cry,” Jacques Demers said. “But he was a man about it. I respect that about him.”
Demers was speaking of his getting the ziggy, and the manner in which he received it.
A phone call came from Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch, asking for a face-to-face meeting. It was mid-June. Ilitch told his coach not to bother leaving; he’d be over to his place.
Inside Demers’s home, Ilitch, in an emotional moment according to both men, told Jacques that he would no longer be coaching the Red Wings.
“I love Jacques Demers,” Ilitch told the media. “And I always will love Jacques Demers.”
Ilitch called the firing one of the most difficult things he ever had to do in his life.
But both men agreed that it had to be done.
Ilitch was probably emotional because if it wasn’t for Demers, Lord knows where the owner’s hockey franchise would be. And I mean today, let alone 1990.
Four years prior, in 1986, Ilitch was heading into his fifth year of ownership and things were arguably worse than when he bought the team. And things were so bad when Bruce Norris sold to Ilitch that we didn’t think it could be any worse.
We were wrong.
The ’85-’86 Wings went 17-57-6. They gave up 415 goals. Yeah.
Ilitch, along with GM Jimmy Devellano, tried patching the roster with cheap, veteran free agents shortly after Ilitch bought the team. That didn’t work so well. So with the farm system still not developing quality players, the strategy changed to hiring higher profile free agents and those fresh out of college.
That worked even less.
So in the summer of 1986, Ilitch, at his wit’s end, looked within his own division and saw how the rival St. Louis Blues responded to their coach who resembled Inspector Clouseau. The spunky Frenchman Jacques Demers.
Ilitch shanghaied Demers from St. Louis, causing some rancor and ill will. But Ilitch didn’t much care about whether he ruffled the Blues’ feathers. He had himself a disaster in Detroit, and needed relief NOW.
Demers bounced into town, made 21-year-old Steve Yzerman his captain (that worked out pretty well) and preached work ethic, defense, and team.
The Red Wings made it to the conference finals in Demers’ first year, doubling their win total to 34. Demers won the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.
The next year, the Wings won 41 games and again made it to the Final Four. And Demers won the Adams award again. He won it because he guided the Red Wings into the third round despite losing Yzerman to a knee injury in March.
In Year Three, the Wings won the division, albeit with a pedestrian .500 record. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In Year Four, no playoffs. Then came the ziggy, as Ilitch, with Demers’ agreement, felt that another coach would be needed to shove the team up another notch.
Later it was reported that Demers was on thin ice—no pun intended—ever since an unfortunate incident during the 1988 playoffs, in Edmonton. The now infamous Goose Loonies bar debacle, where several players were seen partying into the wee hours, the night before a game that the team lost, dumping them out of the playoffs.
That fall, Bob Probert got busted at the Detroit-Windsor border with drugs. Maybe not Demers’ fault, but combined with the Goose Loonies thing, it gave the impression that Jacques wasn’t the disciplinarian the Red Wings needed.
So Ilitch had his tearful goodbye with Demers in June 1990. In Washington, the Capitals had just canned longtime coach Bryan Murray. Ilitch decided on a swap: Demers for Murray.
Bryan Murray was hired, despite concern that his teams in Washington couldn’t win in the playoffs. Concern that would be validated in Detroit. Concern that would, three years later, lead to Murray’s own cashiering. But without tears.
The Red Wings though, were on their way. They hired Scotty Bowman, and he took the franchise the rest of the way home, to Stanley Cup land. To “Hockeytown.”
But if Mike Ilitch doesn’t hire Jacques Demers in 1986, who in turn made Yzerman his captain at an aggressively young age, the fortunes of the Red Wings may not have been as rich as they currently remain.
We’re spoiled in, ahem, Hockeytown. We demand Stanley Cups, and are offended when the Red Wings don’t contend for them seriously. We’ve become Montreal, the way Montreal used to be.
Oh, and speaking of the Canadiens—the last time they won the Stanley Cup was in 1993. Their coach? Jacques Demers.
Ironic, eh, that we should have become like the French-Canadians with their hockey, since it all started with the four-eyed Frenchy named Jacques Clouseau—I mean, Demers?