Darren McCarty’s return to the Detroit Red Wings included a remarkable revival in Grand Rapids.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Darren McCarty welcomed the birth of his first child in 1996, the same year that Grand Rapids cheered the arrival of a new hockey team.
Little did McCarty know when he chose the name for his son that it might hold some dramatic irony a dozen years later when he would be attempting to not only put his career back together but also his life.
He named his son Griffin.
Fate, it might be said, would bring him to Grand Rapids, where he sought to prove that he could still play pro hockey, even after an extended layoff; and where he would show that he had regained his focus and faith in his abilities.
When he scored his first-ever hat trick against the Colorado Avalanche in the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs, McCarty joked to reporters that it must have been a sign of the apocalypse.
When he scored his second career hat trick in his home debut in a Griffins jersey, he didn’t need to make any quips – it was surely a sign of his resurrection.
McCarty earned himself another NHL contract with the Red Wings, thanks in part to what he was able to show in Grand Rapids.
He is thrilled to be taking the next step in his comeback, a second coming if you will, from broken marriages, bankruptcy and addiction, a hat trick of horrors that helped derail his career.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me,” McCarty said recently after a Griffins practice. “I believe life is full of mulligans and second chances and I’m just grateful to get the opportunity to show that I’ve still got some juice and still can play.”
It’s been a long road back for McCarty, whose gambling, drinking and drug problems have been well-documented.
McCarty played 11 seasons with the Red Wings before the organization bought out his contract following the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
Looking for a fresh start, McCarty signed a two-year deal with the Calgary Flames, where, after a promising start, things went from bad to worse. By the end of the end of the 2006-07 season, it looked like he had played his last NHL game.
“Things in my life were changing and I felt like I lost my grip on reality,” he recalled. “Everything fell apart at the same time. I hated life. I hated everything.”
In Calgary, McCarty felt separated from his four children (Griffin, Emerson, Avery, Gracyn), who were still living in the Detroit area with his ex-wife Cheryl, from whom he had divorced in 2004.
“I lost the connection to them and I lost the connection with hockey,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything any more.”
He’s not sure where the train completely went off the tracks. He was already battling alcoholism when his father lost a fight with multiple myeloma in 1999. Certainly the death of James Anders, McCarty’s friend and fellow bandmate in Grinder, didn’t help.
Anders was not only the band’s main creative force, he was also McCarty’s musical mentor. He passed away from heart disease in May 2005, only days after the completion of Grinder’s CD, Out of Our Heads
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” McCarty said. “James was the person who I learned the most about music from. We would sit in his rock room and he’d teach me about Jim Morrison and the Doors, the Beatles, Iggy and the Stooges.”
Grinder, McCarty insists, continues to take a bad rap. It was the lifestyle, not the band nor the music, that led him to lose his focus.
“Writing songs and performing was actually great therapy for me – it was a great escape,” he said. “People who love music understand that therapeutic side, that release. The truth is the band never made me do this or that.
“It came down to the choices I made. I dove into the stereotype and that was my personal decision. But it wasn’t like I was choosing between the band and hockey. In my head, it was just where I was at.”
McCarty eventually realized he needed to put his act together, if not for his personal well-being then for the good of his kids.
“I have a tendency to shrug things off and bury them, so it wasn’t until I was really honest with myself and was able to face some situations, that I could take responsibility for the things I had done – all those dirty little secrets that nobody likes to admit.”
Last summer he had a long talk with his ex-wife about setting things straight and getting himself back on the right track.
“Cheryl has been just a saint as far as the things I’ve put her through,” he said. “Bless her heart for three years where she had to raise four kids, when I was only sporadically in and out of the picture.”
He also sat down with Kris Draper for the first time in years. His former Grind Line teammate offered the use of his Core training facility and its trainers to help him get his 35-year-old body back into playing shape.
Draper was also a part owner of the IHL’s Flint Generals. If McCarty showed he was serious, Draper promised to find a spot for him on the team. It might help, Draper also suggested, if he ditched his red-tinted Mohawk, along with the Grinder cap.
“Drapes was the closest thing to a brother to me for a lot of years,” McCarty said. “It was my doing that we sort of lost track of each other. We’d still text each other occasionally, but I kept him at arm’s length so I could do all those things I wasn’t supposed to be doing.
“When we sat down and talked, it was not like I felt I owed it to him,” McCarty continued, “but I wanted to show him how serious I was. The fact is I needed his help and he opened every door he could for me. It wasn’t just about hockey; it was about having a friend back.”
McCarty opted to put the band in “permanent hiatus,” then met with Ken Holland and Jim Nill to discuss the possibility of a comeback.
“They told me that they weren’t promising me anything, but they would give me an opportunity, and that’s all I wanted. Everything that I’ve ever had that’s been worthwhile I had to work for. Why should this be any different?
“If I got another chance, I wanted to know it was because I earned it. I didn’t want anything given to me.”
McCarty was determined to give his comeback shot everything he had.
“My mindset was: If I’m never going to play again, I don’t want to go out the way that I did,” he said. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. If not, I can at least say that I tried.”
As he worked himself back into shape, it was clear that he was enjoying himself. He was exceedingly easy-going and accommodating as he tried to be as obliging as possible to requests made by the Griffins organization.
“I’ve absolutely loved being here and loved being a part of all this,” McCarty said. “I’ve learned that life works in mysterious ways and I’m thoroughly grateful for the support I’ve received.
“I can’t express my gratitude enough, not only to Mike Stothers and Jim Paek, the guys in the room and the trainers and the kids who help out, but also to the front office and the people of Grand Rapids who have been so gracious.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience, and I’m just trying to enjoy the moment. As I’ve said at various times in my career, I couldn’t have written a better script.”
No matter what else happens in his comeback, McCarty is sure that he will never forget the night of Feb. 15, when he scored three goals in Grand Rapids, when it rained hats and hot dogs and shoes (!), when fans showered him with appreciation not only for a magical night, but for an entire career.
“On a certain scale, it was one of those moments in life that you’ll always remember, like being there for your kids’ births, your wedding day or watching your kids have great achievements. Time stood still. When things get tough, it will be nice to be able to reflect back to that moment.
“I couldn’t sleep that night because I didn’t want the day to end. For me, it was bigger than hockey. Sure it doesn’t hold the same achievement as winning the Cups, but after the last three or four years, thinking about all the blood, sweat and tears that it took, this was the payoff.”
McCarty is positive that he can still contribute at the NHL level. He thinks back to the contributions made by Joe Kocur after former Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman rescued him from the beer leagues.
He would love the opportunity to play that role this time.
“One of the things I’ve never lacked is self-confidence,” he said. “I believe I’m on the right path and that this is a good test. But whatever will be, will be.”
Regardless, he’s going to enjoy every minute.
“It’s all about the journey, not the destination. For me, it’s about taking life at the speed limit. Before, life was always about driving down the highway 100 miles per hour, trying to get to where I was going without enjoying the scenery. Now it means not taking things for granted.”
McCarty feels like a kid again, even if his body feels aches and pains in new places.
“It’s like everything is new and exciting again,” he said. “I’m trying to bring back the person and player that I was – maybe even better. It’s about being back. You know, Mac’s back - let’s do it again.”