In almost all ways, Tony Demers, who played for the Montreal Canadiens from 1937 to 1943, was just another of hundreds who have worn the Habs uniform over the years, who have come and gone and are mostly forgotten now because they were never the Richards or Beliveaus or Lafleurs.
But unlike most others who at one point in the lives had that cup of coffee in the bigs, Demers carried a slight twist to his story, one that is rarely discussed, and it’s a story with details that remain sketchy even today.
The beginning is about hockey.
In my house, I have a really nice photo of Demers posing with the Rocket and Elmer Lach on a line, so they gave him a shot with the big boys, I suppose. He looked like a guy poised to replace Toe Blake at some point on the Punch Line.
But Demers played parts of just five seasons in Montreal as he bounced up and down from the minors. He scored only 20 goals total, and was no star, not by a long shot. His short career ended during the 1943-44 season when he played one game with the New York Rangers, and that was that.
Because what came next probably wasn’t what he had in mind.
In 1945, Demers was fined for an assault on a hotelkeeper. Then, the next year while playing senior hockey in Sherbrooke, he became involved in a gambling situation and was given a ten-game suspension. Things were bad up to this point, but they were about to get worse.
In 1949, Demers was hauled in to the police station regarding the death of a woman who was later revealed to be Demer’s girlfriend. The story issued was that the two had been drinking heavily, they had gotten into an argument, and that he had hit her. Hospital officials, though, said it was more than a simple hit, it was a thorough beating. Demers claimed she had gotten all her bruises from jumping from his moving car. And he didn’t take the unconscious woman to the hospital until the following day which was far too late, and tragically, the lady passed away.
The court didn’t buy the “jumping from the car” story and Tony Demers was found guilty of manslaughter, given 15 years in the maximum security St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary in Montreal and he served eight years of the fifteen before being released.
In the late 1980’s, while I was living in Ottawa, it was announced that this notorious St. Vincent de Paul was finally closing its doors after about 100 years, and the public was invited to tour the closed prison for a dollar. So I took my family to Montreal for the day to have a look.
The penitentiary was a horrendous place. They had left the cells the way they were, so clothes, writings, and graffitti on the walls were there as they had been. It was dirty and dark and my kids were nervous. I think it might have set them on the straight and narrow from that day on.
In Roger Caron’s book ‘Go Boy’, he described St. Vincent’s as the meanest and most dangerous prison in Canada, and he knew what he was writing about because he had served most of his adult life in different institutions across the country. It was a prison that had served its brutal purpose and was no longer useful.
It just didn’t seem a fitting place for a hockey hero but for Tony Demers, it was. So while the Rocket, Blake, and Lach thrilled the Forum faithful with big goals and Stanley Cups, an old teammate, one who had onced shared the dressing room, train rides, restaurants, and hotels, sat in a dark cell inside Canada’s worst prison, maybe listening from time to time on the radio as his old friends carried on.
Demers went mostly into obscurity after his release eight years later, did some youth coaching from time to time, and eventually died in 1997. It has to be one of the sadder stories in the 100 year saga of the Montreal Canadiens.