This is a story of loyalty, courage, disaster, hope, strength, rescue, resurgence and lifelong friendship.
From the moment Dmac stepped onto the ice wearing the winged wheel, Darren McCarty was a fan favorite. An amazing dichotomy, our Dmac: a big bruising monster of a man and hockey player, who could charm anyone and everyone with his joie de vivre and that silly “kid in a candy shop” smile. He immediately wormed his way into the hearts of Detroiters, instantly beloved by all as he embraced the city and its fans with his buoyant optimism, that toothless grin and ineffable charm.
At 6’1”, 215 pounds, he was drafted as an enforcer. The fact that he is also a deadly shot mattered perhaps less than his toughness and fearlessness on the ice. Then again you didn’t get into Scotty Bowman’s lineup unless you had the speed, deft puck handling skills and talent to hang with the Russians.
Darren established himself as a team leader and an integral player on a team that was amongst the first to fully embrace left wing lock, puck possession hockey. He had to be everything to everyone. He had to finish all his checks, punish those who messed with our smaller snipers and scorers, execute the lock and still produce points. It was no easy task to be a grinder in the mid to late 1990’s.
I think of Darren McCarty as a perfect example of how to meld the physicality of old school hockey with the European influence.
The One Dollar Man
In the same year Darren was brought up from Adirondack, Detroit traded Winnipeg for Kris Draper for One dollar. $1.00. The “One Dollar Man”.
For over some 17 years I have watched his explosive talent, speed, tenacity, intellect, work ethic and wonder how the powers that be in Winnipeg failed to see all this guy had to offer and stupidly let such a talent go. Perhaps they were just distracted…
Reelin in the Early Years
In the same year Dmac and Drapes arrived in Detroit, Mr. Bowman took the helm. He put the two on the third line and gave them a role- grind it out, wear the opposition down, enforce and score. The two became fast and furious friends.
Drapes and Mac could be seen out together (often with Kocur and Osgood) at many a local watering hole in the mid 90’s. Drinks flowed, girls cooed, parties were none stop. Mac was the ring leader, a card and a good ol’ boy. HEDHS he even formed a band (Grinder) and sang lead. Mac was the life of the party and a celebrity fixture throughout the City.
For a while, I believe Mac even roomed with Drapes and Ozzie in a riverfront apartment complex near the Joe. Actually, I think he and Joey Kocur were roommates, maybe they all just hung out at Drapes place. Still, can you imagine it? Play Stations, Nintendo, Pizza Pizza boxes, Molson Canadians brought in from the Beer Store in Windsor, Mac’s guitars all around, motorcycles and random women.
The friendships that formed in these early years would set the stage for life long loyalty. To be young in your twenties and a Red Wing…
To be in your twenties and a Wing in the mid 1990’s also meant that your first, foremost and ultimate focus had to be in seeking the Cup. Scotty Bowman had not left his Buffalo home for Detroit because he was a snow bird… Bowman, Ilitch, and Holland were not assembling the first true Russo-Euro laden NHL team on a whim.
Scotty Bowman came to Detroit to pursue his latest dream – and changed the face of NHL hockey for ever. By succeeding in the NHL with European style dominating the game, a long time vision for both Bowman and Mike Ilitch. Ilitch was instrumental in the migration of Russian players to the US, perhaps one of the most important persons in the history. Anyone who doubts this should ask Sergei Federov who made it possible for him to defect from the Soviet Union as he snuck from the cafeteria and boarded the Red Bird One under cover of dark in Seattle that fateful eve during the Goodwill Games.
It was an exciting time. The City of Detroit had not seen a Stanley Cup in 42 years, the longest cup drought in the history of the League. 42 years! So painful, for a sports town with true long lasting and suffering passion for the game. By the time Bowman came in, and immediately started to win, the hearts and souls of all Red Wings fans, new and tried, young and old were hopelessly bound to this team. And we embraced each of these boys, from Stevie to Vladdie to Nick to Dmac as our own, family even. We still do.
We were once more beginning to live and die by our Wings, once more daring to hope and believe as we had when Stevie Yzerman was drafted to Detroit, and through the late 80’s, when Demers, Klima, Oates and Probert gave us hope and excitement.
Friendships Cemented into Brotherhood
In 1994, a classmate of mine, who also happened to have been Scotty Bowman’s neighbor in Buffalo, took me up to a Red Wing game on Bowman’s tix. It was the first time I had been back to Detroit, much less in the Joe in years. Standing outside the locker room while the boys all went inside, feeling a bit like one of those trampy chicks who linger trolling for players, I tried to separate myself from all the black polyblend spandex-y pants, dark red lipstick and Neve Campbell bobs. I stepped back out of the fray, left of center and stood watching the action around the locker room, and realized there was a hum, a life of its own in these walls. Something beyond special was happening in those years.
Dmac, Drapes, Ozzie all left the locker room together, Dmac with that ineffiable charming and almost fully toothed smile, laid one on the ladies Drapes looked oblivious, Osgood kept his head down. I giggled hysterically. One girl yelled “goin to the Post boys?” and laughter ensued as they walked on by. Whatever trouble those boys were bound for that night, they were together. Ironically enough, Classmate and I ended up slugging some beers back with this motley crew- and though that is another story for another time, I will say I this: you could see even at that point that the bond amongst these friends was as tight as a five hole in the playoffs…
May 6, 1996. Game 6 Western Conference Finals.
A dirty hit by a dirty player, slamming and crushing a head down onto the top of the boards at the bench, no body check at all. Just a purely intentional, evil crush straight to the head. A shattered jaw, a concussion. A fan favorite bloodied, helped off the ice, not to return for almost a year. A City sickened. Tears in ALL the girls eyes, fury and hate for the team and the monster that did this to our Kris Draper. Worst game I ever saw. To this day, I would spit in Claude le mew’s face if I ever had the misfortune to cross his path. I will never spell his name properly. I’d use a euphemism for “le mew” if I though I could get away with it on these boards. Look, Le mew was a rotten soulless bass ‘tard, I don’t care how good a player some say he was. He makes Avery look like a Lady Byng winner.
A teammate, friend, a brother taken from the game, out of play for nearly a year to recover from reconstructive surgery. No two game suspension or 5 for fighting penalty was ever going to wipe that awful memory from Detroit heads.
Retribution: March 26, 1997
We waited in anticipation for that end of the season game against the Avalanche. Not only were we healthy and ready to win our first cup in 42 years, but we knew Dmac would avenge Drapes. It was all we talked about at the water cooler that week. We absolutely wanted revenge and retribution.
And the outcome was spectacular- on a full team scale. Everyone from Larionov taking Forsberg on, to Shanny tackling Roy mid-air, to the fight we all waited for: Dmac pummeling the Turtle into submission.
With the beating that made the turtle his “beach” (give it a French accent) to his joyous triple sow cow in celebration of his OT game winning goal, Darren McCarty showed us all again why he is an all-time great. An enforcer who can score the prettiest of crucial game winning goals.
Forever to be revered in the City of Detroit. Darren McCarty a Wing lifer, case closed. No questions asked, the Wings Organization always rewards the sort of grit, loyalty talent and heart Darren McCarty epitomizes. The only person who could harm Darren at this point was himself.
A Rock Crumbles
And gradually he did. First, the toll of his father’s struggle with cancer, followed by succumbing to a lifelong fight against addictions, bankruptcy and whispers of divorce. These things would take their toll on the man whose primary work and life role had so clearly grown to look after everyone else. To guard everyone else, to take care of everyone else.
Who would take care of Dmac when he needed it?
His last year with Detroit was before the 04-05 lockout. The Wings ended up buying out his contract and he found himself, for the first time ever, outside of Detroit. In his time with Calgary, he failed, for the first season ever, to score a even a single point.
Failed to score a single point in a whole season. Calgary let him go. For the first time in 14-15 seasons he was without a job, out of hockey.
A beaten man. It appeared so. Not hard to speculate that such dramatic and difficult personal problems had finally overwhelmed him.
However, to believe that would be to summarily dismiss all I have just written of, and failed to see what I have been trying to communicate, that this man is a fighter, from the bottom of his skates to the top of his helmet. Through and through.
Down and out, saddled with financial problems and addictions he could not cure or control on his own, and in danger of losing a family who had been stretched beyond the limits, Darren McCarty had to find that place inside where he remembered he was a champion, an elite talented, monster of a man.
He found his way back to hockey. He didn’t do it alone.
Reinvention: The Flint Generals
A phone call to a life long friend, who had to suffer the pain of watching his talented and incredible brother fall to pieces. Even if they had drifted apart through Dmac’s trials, there can be no doubt that in a single phone call, probably for one of the first times ever, Dmac asked for help and someone was more than willing to give it to him. A phone conversation that probably went a little like this:
“I want to play again.”
Kris Draper, part owner of the IHL team, the Flint Generals, gave (along with Ken Holland) Dmac a script to follow. Everyone knew if Darren could execute, then he would be back with the Wings. Perhaps it was never spoken, but if it was I see Ken and D walking across the ice at the Joe like this:
“Darren, we’re proud of your fight. I support you, Stevie supports you, Mike supports you, Kris supports you. Show us you can do it and we will be thrilled to bring you up.”
And a plan was hatched: First, show us you have anything left in Flint, stay sober, stop gambling, keep your life in order, get into condition, then to Grand Rapids to prove yourself there again, and if it goes to plan, we’ll talk about Detroit.
A 37 year old three time Stanley cup winning right winger from Burnaby BC fighting some of the worst addictions a person can face, laced up skates again in Flint, Michigan on an IHL team and took his first steps back onto the ice. Doing what it took to get him to the next step. 10 games, three goals in that first season.
Reinventing himself and fighting as if he were 25. And he made it back, with a little help from his friends.
In 1997, a young man avenged the senseless and horrific near career ending blow on one of his best friends. Ten years later, that friend was able to return the favor.