DETROIT – Sobriety. Family. Hockey.
Darren McCarty says those are his first three priorities – in order – and they’ve helped him make a comeback with the Detroit Red Wings after drinking, divorce and bankruptcy led him to hit rock bottom last summer.
“It’s a dream come true,” McCarty said Friday, sitting in sweat-soaked gear in front of his locker after playing in the series opener against the Nashville Predators. “Life’s about second chances.”
McCarty was out of hockey in November when he and his son watched Detroit and Calgary – his two former teams – play at Joe Louis Arena.
Around that time, the comeback began by talking to former teammate Kris Draper and accepting Draper’s offer to get into shape by working out at his training facility and playing for his minor-league team in Flint.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who was the team’s top scout when it drafted McCarty in 1992, saw a promising sign when McCarty ditched a mohawk for a conservative haircut when they had a meeting in January.
Holland offered no guarantees, but did extend a chance to play for Detroit’s minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids with the possibility of getting back to the NHL.
McCarty did enough to earn a deal in late February.
“I’ve got a soft spot for Darren,” Holland said.
Many fans do, too.
Retired star Steve Yzerman is probably the most popular player in Michigan – in any sport – over the past two decades, while McCarty has been arguably the second-most popular Red Wing.
The gritty player helped Detroit win Stanley Cups in 1997, ’98 and 2002. He attracted followers off the ice with a gap-tooth grin and struggles that only seemed to make him more endearing to some, perhaps in the way John Daly does on and around a golf course.
“Fans can connect with him because he’s a regular guy and he’s had some problems, just like all of us have,” Holland said. “But his have been public.”
McCarty made his fourth trip to rehab to work on substance-abuse issues in July and soon he expects to be divorced for a second time.
He filed for bankruptcy – listing assets of US$1.9 million and debts of $6.2 million – and had to auction off Red Wing-related possessions along with items such as a speed boat and cigar humidor.
McCarty said much of his financial issues were tied to former friends who didn’t pay back debts at casinos, but did acknowledge getting in too deep with gambling in the past.
“Ten years ago, I bet on football. Not huge, but big enough where it got to the point where I lost money where I was like, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ And I never bet on football again,” he said. “I enjoy playing poker, but is that really gambling? I haven’t played poker in a long time.
“I guess gambling to me is when you bet on a sporting event and you have no control over the outcome. At least in poker you’re playing against other people. You’re not playing against a machine or the house. That’s just my mentality.”
McCarty said he hit rock bottom nine months ago when it hit him that his four children – ages 4 to 11 – didn’t really have a father. The mother of his children helped him start to put his life back in order.
“She just said pretty much, ‘Don’t you think if you take care of yourself, the people who love you will come back?”‘ he recalled. “And that was sort of my, ‘OK, it’s time to step up and do something.”‘
McCarty said he hasn’t consumed alcohol since July 20, 2007, and is happily living with his ex-wife and their children in suburban Detroit.
“We’re two adults raising our kids together,” he said. “Our relationship has never been better as far as respect and communication. It’s everything it never was and nothing it used to be.”
McCarty isn’t the player he was a decade ago as a member of the hard-hitting unit dubbed “The Grind Line,” and isn’t a lock to be in the lineup Saturday in Game 2.
But Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said McCarty can still contribute after watching him play in Detroit’s 3-1 win Thursday night.
McCarty mixed it up with the Predators, staring at them at times and smiling at others.
“He does give you that presence, a physical element,” Trotz said. “He’s got a lot of experience and he’s had some great, big goals here and was a backbone for a lot of the great teams.
“I have a lot of respect for his game.”
McCarty hopes he, his family and teammates along with the public will also have respect for him as a human being. He knows some will simply roll their eyes when hearing about his latest set of priorities and how this quest for sobriety is different.
“How do you know? It’s just that life is different,” McCarty said. “Instead of running from it, you’re dealing with it. It doesn’t go away. But I’ve got the tools and the resources to slowly do that.
“And I’m not alone, which is the biggest thing … It’s not about being the hockey player. It’s about being the person. I think that there was never any separation of that before. Now it is.”