Hockey coach overcomes illiteracy, becomes Tory senator

He hopes his life story — of the illiterate ex-hockey coach turned Conservative senator — can inspire others.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

MONTREAL — He hopes his life story — of the illiterate ex-hockey coach turned Conservative senator — can inspire others.

Jacques Demers, a Stanley Cup winning coach who has spoken frankly about his lifelong struggle to read, is slated for a seat in the red chamber.

His current employer made the announcement Thursday. The RDS sports network, where Demers works as a hockey analyst, said he would be among the host of nominees to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The news was greeted with cheers in the hockey world: “I think Jacques is a great politician,” quipped Steve Yzerman, a superstar centre whom Demers named captain in 1986.

The backslapping, jovial old coach says he was contacted by Harper’s entourage on July 13 and asked if he’d be interested.

Demers says his story could serve as a lesson to others.

“I’ve worked so hard these last four years to improve my reading and writing. All of a sudden, they name me senator. It’s just incredible,” Demers, 65, was quoted saying on the RDS site.

“I always worked hard in my life. First, to become a coach. Then in broadcasting. I was able to demonstrate that, despite a limited education, you can accomplish good things.

“I hope I can serve as an example to people who face a lot of struggles.”

Demers was at an event with the prime minister Thursday, seated in the front row during a lunchtime announcement by Harper at Laval university.

He is the last man to coach a Canadian team to the Stanley Cup, a feat he achieved in his first year behind the Montreal Canadiens’ bench in 1993.

He told interviewers that, as recently as 2005, he could only write his name and a few other words.

In November 2005, Demers released a biography, written by journalist Mario LeClerc, in which he revealed that he is functionally illiterate and had to hide it throughout his life.

He would hire assistants to read hockey contracts. He described how he pretended to read notes while he was on TV.

He also described the various means 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.

A list of the nine new senators appointed Thursday

OTTAWA — A list and brief biographies of the nine new senators appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday:

Carolyn Stewart Olsen (New Brunswick) — Harper’s communications director and a former emergency-room nurse.

Doug Finley (Ontario) — The Conservative party’s national campaign director in the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. A former corporate and party executive.

Don Plett (Manitoba) — Conservative party president. Minor sports coach and community organizer.

Jacques Demers (Quebec) — A former head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, currently a TV sports broadcaster. Worked on behalf of literacy after publicly acknowledging he’d been illiterate for much of his life.

Linda Frum Sokolowski (Ontario) — Journalist and author. Former feature columnist for the National Post and past contributing editor to Maclean’s Magazine. Daughter of the late journalist Barbara Frum.

Claude Carignan (Quebec) — Mayor of Saint-Eustache, Que. Lawyer.

Kelvin Ogilvie (Nova Scotia) — Past-president of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. Award-winning international expert in biotechnology, bio-organic chemistry and genetic engineering.

Dennis Patterson (Nunavut) — A former premier of the Northwest Territories. Lawyer. Led a more than 20-year campaign culminating in the establishment of Nunavut as a territory in 1999.

Judith Seidman (Quebec) — Educator, researcher and adviser to universities, government and not-for-profit agencies in the fields of health and social services.

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