Once-troubled McCarty takes long road back to NHL

Darren McCarty makes one thing perfectly clear: Returning to the Detroit Red Wings is not the victory; it’s just the icing on the cake.

The 36-year-old right winger has been to hell and back. He lost everything that was important to him, was humbled by drugs, alcohol and gambling, forced into bankruptcy and, most importantly, divorced from his high school sweetheart and estranged from his four children. The guy who had career earnings of $15.6 million suddenly found himself broke and without a game plan.

“For whatever reason, the best way to describe it is I sort of got lost for a few years,” says McCarty, who was reunited with the Red Wings and his old Grind Line mates Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby March 28 after two forgettable seasons with the Calgary Flames. “It really took a lot of soul searching for me to get my priorities in order and for me to start feeling good about myself and to start taking care of my kids and things like that.

“I finally realized what was important. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely fulfilling and I am appreciative of the experience. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, though.”

Who would?

McCarty was once the toast of the town in Detroit, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who scored the Cup-winning goal in 1997. If that wasn’t enough, he was also the lead singer for the punk-rock group ‘Grinder’ and he played the role to the hilt. Along the way – and he’s the first to admit it – his priorities got way out of whack. And as much as he paid the price, it was those who loved him the most that felt the most pain.

“For me, I could abuse myself to no end,” McCarty says. “Pain didn’t bother me; I’m a hockey player – we ignore pain. The biggest thing for me was, I wasn’t the father I wanted to be. I wasn’t the father, the son, the teammate or the friend I wanted to be. I looked in the mirror and realized things had gotten so out of control; not just from drinking and using, but the fact I was ignoring my responsibilities. I had checked out. I didn’t like hockey anymore; I didn’t like anything.”

McCarty decided last summer to take stock of his life and headed to California for three months in rehab.

“When I got there it was such a relief,” he recalls. “I remember pulling into the place and thinking, ‘Thank God.’ I had done it before, but this time was different. This time I knew I was done. I was able to start early on re-establishing the relationships that were important to me.”

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And if there is a savior in this story, it is his ex-wife, Cheryl, the mother of his son and three daughters.

“Cheryl she said to me, ‘Do you not think that if you start taking care of yourself, everybody that loves you won’t come back into your life?’ ” McCarty says. “To me that was the I’m-not-fooling-anybody moment when the light went on. It gave me a glimmer of hope. I sat there and watched everything slide away and I did nothing to help my own cause. That was the moment when I said, ‘Screw this.’ I had gone as deep as I had ever been, but I was determined from that point to get back. The thing that killed me the most was I wasn’t being the father that I wanted to be.”

Another assist goes to Draper, whom McCarty says is like a brother to him. Through McCarty’s troubles, the two had lost touch, but when McCarty called Draper last fall, they re-established their relationship. Draper even put in a good word to management on behalf of his pal.

“He worked hard,” Draper says. “Nobody gave him anything. He went to a gym I own six days a week, worked with personal trainers and no matter what time they said to be there, he was there. He probably worked out more from November to April than he did throughout his entire career. He really re-committed himself, sometimes working out twice a day. He showed a personal commitment to trying to give himself every chance to get back to the NHL. Nothing was handed to him.”

The Wings sent McCarty to Flint of the IHL and then Grand Rapids of the AHL before recalling him for the March game in Chicago. He doesn’t know what the future holds, only that he wants to play in the NHL a few more years and wants to be the best person he can be.

“I need to be here for my kids, with my kids, for me,” he says. “My priorities are pretty simple – sobriety, family and then hockey. If I don’t have No. 1, then I can’t have No. 2 and No. 3.”

This story originally appeared in the April 29 edition of The Hockey News. For more great stories like this, pick up the latest issue on newsstands, buy it digitally or subscribe online.