DETROIT -- How quickly they forget.
Only a few years ago, the Detroit Red Wings were the laughingstock of the NHL. The winged wheel on their chests instilled nothing but confidence -- in opponents, who would soon be two points richer in the standings.
Enter the funny round French guy who talked incessantly in fractured English. Jacques Demers taught the Red Wings how to win again. Within a month of his first season, he announced the end of the Dead Wings, and his players believed him.
In remarkably short order, Demers restored dignity and pride to an organization that had little in the previous 20 years, and the players were grateful. Said one at the time, "I'd step in front of a bus for that guy."
Four seasons later, some of the same players were ready to push Demers in the path of an oncoming bus. In essence, they did. When owner Mike Ilitch polled some of his key players after the team failed to make the playoffs last spring, he got an earful.
Demers lost his job, replaced by Bryan Murray from the Washington Capitals, but it doesn't seem to be enough for some of his former players. Two weeks ago, injured goaltender Greg Stefan told a Toronto Globe and Mail reporter that the players lost respect for their coach after the way he handled a curfew-breaking incident at an Edmonton nightclub during the playoffs in 1988. Steve Yzerman said the team stopped believing when the Red Wings traded Adam Oates and Paul MacLean to St. Louis. Shawn Burr said the coach's firing was best for everyone involved -- including Demers.
"Before, I didn't know how committed everyone was," Yzerman told the Toronto Sun. "I didn't know how serious we were about playing or practicing. I don't want to blame Jacques for the way things were. That was only part of it. It just wasn't very professional around here. It seemed four years ago, when players screwed up they were reprimanded. But after a while, it just didn't matter what anybody did."
"Guys just asked me questions, and I've answered them," said Yzerman. "I haven't decided I was going to be critical or cut somebody up."
Said goalie Glen Hanlon: "I don't like seeing some of those comments. It's not necessary. I feel bad for Jacques. I know I'll never forget those years, and when I talk with some of the guys who were here then -- guys like Mel Bridgman and Tim Higgins -- they say it was the best time they ever had in hockey."
Who could forget the 38-point turnaround in Demers's first season, when the Red Wings recovered from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to beat Toronto and advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals against Edmonton?
Yzerman -- who was named captain and emerged as one of the NHL's premier players during the Demers years -- concurred with Hanlon, saying that 93-point team that Demers assembled in his second season here "was the best team I've ever played on. . . . But the next year, things started to slide."