What is that curious noise coming from Joe Louis Arena? That plopping? And who is this Jacques Demers, who has all the gourmet fish shops in Detroit calling their wholesalers for a supply of octopuses?
It all harks back to the '50s. Back then, the Red Wings were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, and when playoff time rolled around, Detroit fans would interrupt games at Olympia Stadium by lobbing an occasional octopus onto the ice. Plop. It was good luck, they figured; each tentacle stood for one of the playoff victories needed to win the Cup (8 then, 16 nowadays). It worked in '55 but not since. Over the intervening decades the Red Wings stopped earning playoff berths, even as the NHL grew less particular about who got them. Flying octopuses went out of fashion.
But now the team has been rejuvenated by Demers, a bespectacled French-Canadian extrovert and self-made coaching genius, and is threatening to cause a run on tentacled invertebrates. At week's end the Wings had won four of their last six games, and they were five points in front of their closest Norris Division rival with a 30-28-9 record. This from a team that was the worst of all 21 teams in the league last season.
Last week the 42-year-old Demers, whose command of English allows for an occasional malaprop, reflected on his startling success: "Everyone said, 'When he gets to Detroit, he's going to take a landslide.' But I think I have done a commandable job with this team." He calls them "my pesky Red Wings."
The tight-checking Peskies, who have 33 more points than they had at the same time last season, are the NHL's most improved club. Meanwhile the St. Louis Blues, whom Demers left in a blaze of acrimony last summer, are nine points behind their '86 pace. One man, it seems, can make a difference.
Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, boss of the Little Caesars Pizza chain, had begun the 1985-86 season by lavishing a cool $6.75 million on the so-called Dough Boys, eight free agents who were supposed to lead Detroit to the promised land. The Bros. Dough turned out to be a bust to rival the Edsel. The Red Wings hit rock bottom in almost every one of the NHL's major statistical categories: winning the fewest games (17); scoring the fewest goals (266); and—completing the hat trick—giving up the most (415, second-most in NHL history). So Ilitch decided to hire a new coach. He had tried three in 1985-86: Harry Neale, Brad Park and Dan Belisle, who spelled Park while he served a three-game suspension for ordering his players to fight.
"Four hundred and fifteen goals," said Demers recently when reminded of last season's Red Wings. "That shows a lack of discipline." That's anathema to Demers. But whether he is taking his customary shot of Maalox before a game or flipping lazy wrist shots and cracking jokes while skating with his players in practice, Demers appears to be more teddy than bear. Sometimes, though, appearances deceive.
Early this season, after a 6-0 loss in Toronto, Demers canceled everyone's Sunday off-day plans. Together they endured a six-hour film festival of their follies. The next day he had the red-eyed Wings report for duty at 7 a.m., skated them for four hours and then had them lift weights and attend meetings before letting them go at 5 p.m.
Demers seems to relish the recounting. What he doesn't talk about is that he had threatened the team with three such grueling days. "He was too nice a guy to go through with it," says winger Gerard Gallant, laughing. "It was hurting him as much as it hurt us."
Demers and the Red Wings also have been exceptionally patient and understanding with left wing Bob Probert, who entered a Windsor, Ont., hospital on Feb. 11 to be treated for alcoholism. Probert returned to Joe Louis Arena last week for the first time since he began the work-release phase of the program. The 9-3 rout of Minnesota was a victory within a victory; Detroit's second goal came on a penalty shot by Probert.