Commentary

Latest McCarty journey ends with a silver pot at the end of the rainbow

Sure, spending a day with the Stanley Cup for the fourth time is special. But when you're Darren McCarty, it has a far deeper meaning, writes Scott Burnside.

Updated: September 4, 2008, 12:47 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. -- They are gathered around the Stanley Cup, knee to knee, a father, two daughters and his son, the fabled bowl filled to the brim with chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and cookie dough ice cream, all topped with a calorie-pounding amount of chocolate syrup and sprinkles.

The McCarty kids bust into laughter as dad Darren clutches his head in mild agony. Frozen brain. Oh, no.

Sure, there were the guys from the Rite Aid pharmacy who strolled in, not believing the Stanley Cup was next door at Stroh's Ice Cream Parlor. ("I thought, sure, nice joke. The Stanley Cup? You wish," one shocked employee said.) And there were the complete strangers, wide-eyed, who were handed white plastic spoons to help out with this mother of all sundaes.

But if you could hold this moment in your hand, a father and his children laughing and dripping ice cream out of the Stanley Cup, it gives you pause to consider just what is possible in a world that sometimes feels all out of possible.

"That's at the top of my Cup highlight reel," McCarty says later with a big smile. "We did it the right way."

A day with the Cup

What's it like to have a day with the Stanley Cup? Scott Burnside found out, spending time with Red Wings executive Scotty Bowman and grinder Darren McCarty, each of whom had interesting tales to tell.
• Bowman | McCarty
• Zoom gallery: See the baby-in-the-Cup photo

This is the fourth time Darren McCarty has hosted the Stanley Cup. In and of itself, it's a spectacular accomplishment, given that McCarty comes from the blue-collar side of the hockey street, as opposed to the white-collar side familiar to Nicklas Lidstrom, Wayne Gretzky, et al. Random examples: When he was a child learning to play the game, McCarty's parents, Craig and Roberta, pulled him out of minor hockey for a year because he didn't want to wear a jock strap. He took skating lessons in the offseason and once recorded 127 points as a junior. Drafted 46th overall in 1992 by the Red Wings, McCarty became one of the team's most popular and endearing figures as the Wings won Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

The willfulness that saw him forge a career few could have imagined has put him in good stead in recent months, determined as he is to put behind him long-standing substance abuse and financial problems to resurrect his hockey career.


McCarty's fourth time having a day with the Cup begins with breakfast at Greek Islands Coney Restaurant. In addition to McCarty and his kids, in attendance are Roberta, Cheryl, his former wife and mother of the four McCarty children, plus a crew from NHL Productions, a photographer and a scribe. The Cup sits at a nearby table as the breakfast conversation floats easily from Olympic results to the virtues of Canadian citizenship versus American citizenship.

The kids do a little math and figure that at the rate the rings of the Cup are swapped out to make room for new names, they will be in their 70s when their father's name disappears from the Cup. When you're nine or 10, that's a lifetime.

[+] EnlargeDarren McCarty
Ross Dettman/ESPN.comA sundae to end all sundaes for Darren McCarty's family.
After breakfast, the next stop on the McCarty itinerary is The Barber Pole, a local barbershop frequented by the family. Indeed, the morning after the Wings defeated Pittsburgh last June, McCarty was there to have his playoff beard removed.

Word spreads quickly in the small downtown area of Birmingham, and soon the lineup snakes down the street of folks who want their picture taken with the Cup and to meet McCarty. Among those in line is a two-week-old baby (with her parents, naturally) sporting a Detroit Red Wings blanket.

"The barbershop is such an American place," explains owner Stephen Trachsel. "This is unbelievable," he adds.

While fans line up outside the shop, Griffin McCarty, 12, quickly heads off down the street with younger sister Emerson and a pal. Later, he and the Cup will be back at The Barber Pole, where Griffin will endure an unwelcome pre-school haircut. Much to the delight of his friends and siblings, Griffin's beloved Detroit Tigers hat will fail to fit just right after the trim.

Emerson, 10, is another case altogether. Wise and outgoing, she is sporting a red cast on her wrist courtesy of what she describes as a basement hockey fight with Griffin. From the sounds of it, this was less Darren McCarty on Claude Lemieux than an unfortunate piling on. Did it hurt, she is asked? No. In fact, Emerson went to volleyball camp for a couple of days before the cast was applied.

She points out, quite proudly, that she is her father's daughter.

When McCarty left Detroit after the lockout and headed to Calgary, Cheryl moved with the kids into a house in this comfortable suburb and quickly became regulars at Stroh's Ice Cream Parlour, The Varsity sports shop, Teacups and Toys pet store -- all of which receive a visit from the Cup on this day. When McCarty returned to the game and to the Red Wings this season he, too, became a regular at the house and the local shops.

All four of the McCarty children will be attending St. Regis Catholic School in town this year. Classes won't begin for another week but McCarty and the kids drop by with the Cup, much to the delight of the staff members getting ready for the coming school year.

"Oh, I've always wanted to touch Stanley," signs teacher Fran Zakoor, embracing the kids and, quite naturally, the Cup in a hallway outside the office. She is, she admits, fond of the children and their father.

"I love that he's put his life story right out there and made people aware of how you can turn everything around. God bless him for that," she signs.

Among those spending the day with McCarty and his clan is longtime friend Tim Drummond. The license plate on his refurbished blue pickup reads "Hyperman," but he appears to be a gentle soul, giving shoulder rides to four-year-old Gracyn while the older kids play and McCarty signs autographs and poses for pictures.

Drummond owns a company that does sound and lighting for bands and entertainers, and got to know McCarty when McCarty was in his rock 'n' roll phase with the band Grinder. Drummond decides he's known McCarty since about 1993 "but it just seems like forever," he said.

Drummond lives north of the city and whenever McCarty wants to get away, whether it's snowmobiling or just hanging out, he often calls Drummond.

"I've been around for all of it," Drummond said of McCarty's well-documented trials and tribulations. "Through thick and thin. And here's the Cup, and here we are, and isn't it a giggle?"

He shakes his head.

"Finally, there's something right in the world," he said.

Could he have imagined this scene a year ago?

"To imagine it, probably not. But you always want it to be so," he said.


Speaking of Lemieux, at the Core fitness facility in nearby Troy, Mich., there are pictures of McCarty pummeling the Colorado Avalanche pest in one of the most famous games of the last half century (if you're a Red Wing fan, anyway) from late in the 1996-97 season. Teammate and longtime friend Kris Draper runs his hockey school out of the facility and is involved in the fitness operation.

[+] EnlargeDarren McCarty
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesIt was a long road back, but this season Darren McCarty got another chance at raising Stanley.
It was to Draper that McCarty turned when he felt he was capable of mounting a comeback, and so McCarty has honored his friend by bringing the Cup for what turns out to be a massive turnout of both youngsters and those whom the Cup makes young again.

While players line up en masse for a picture with the Cup and a chance for an autograph with McCarty and/or Draper, Draper acknowledges that having McCarty bring the Cup defies most of what seems likely or probable.

"Honestly, you couldn't have scripted this any better. This is Disney for all of us involved," Draper said.

The two players were best friends for the better part of a decade of hockey in Detroit. But when McCarty began to embrace a lifestyle of gambling, drugs and alcohol, the connection between the two was lost.

"I just kind of saw him spiraling," said Draper.

He told his old friend that if he ever needed anything, to call, and Draper would be there. For a long time, the phone remained silent. Then, last fall, it rang.

Just before Thanksgiving, McCarty told Draper he felt his life would be better with hockey in it. He thought he had something left, but he honestly didn't know, and he needed to find out.

Would Draper help him?

Draper told him he'd help set McCarty up with fitness trainers at Core but that he had to commit to it, no coming in periodically. McCarty said he wanted to meet the next day. That day the instructors asked when McCarty wanted to start and he again said the next day.

"I'd never seen that in Mac before," Draper said.

McCarty didn't miss sessions, and it wasn't long before he was back playing in the minors, first in Flint, Mich., and then Grand Rapids, Mich., before joining the Wings for their Cup run in the spring.

"Nobody gave him anything," Draper said. "He earned it himself."

McCarty and his traveling party take a break to grab some food in one of the meeting rooms at the facility. He has always been generous with his time as a player, and today is no different. But having the Cup can be an exercise in patience and extended good humor, and McCarty looks a little weary.

He is nothing, though, if not self-aware. He understands how this day with the Cup is a gift. Not a gift from the heavens, necessarily, but rather a gift he gave himself -- and by extension his family, friends, teammates and fans.

"That was the story line of my comeback," he said.

Take each step, each moment, as a challenge and meet it, he said.

"Taking everything in stride," he said. "This is no different.

"The more you think about quitting, the easier it is to quit. That's the honest truth."

Today, he has revealed the rewards of resisting that sometimes irresistible urge to pack it in.

"The best thing is how old the kids are now. How they can appreciate it," McCarty said. "You'll see tonight at the party, there'll be more kids than adults there. This time it's more about sharing it with them. That's why it means so much."

At some point, McCarty's children will have to reconcile themselves to the things that happened to their family, to their father. Yet days like this -- a day committed as much to them as to their father -- will almost certainly hold a special place in their memories for years to come.


Tables and chairs have magically appeared in the backyard at the Birmingham home Cheryl and the kids moved into after McCarty headed off to Calgary after the lockout. McCarty returned here, too, reconnecting not just with the game but with his family earlier this year.

Caterers are busy putting the finishing touches on the food areas, the bar and the barbecue. The Cup has found a home on a table off to one side, and as the guests start to trickle in, a photo procession begins.

[+] EnlargeDarren McCarty
Craig Melvin/Getty ImagesMcCarty's second Cup kiss came in 1998.
Roberta McCarty watches as a gaggle of kids follows Griffin into the house; Emerson emerges from the house to show off an outfit that nicely accentuates the red cast.

Seeing the Cup once again opens a door to memories long put away: early-morning hockey practices; the 250,000 miles put on the family van in Ontario driving back and forth between the family's home in Essex County and Peterborough, where Darren played junior B hockey, and then to Belleville, where he played major junior.

The Cup's return -- in many ways unexpected -- is also a reminder of both the toll of heartache and the power of redemption.

Asked if there's a way to say what it means to be here, Roberta pauses, her eyes glistening.

"To win a Cup for the fourth time, but especially under the circumstances that it came to Darren's hands this year, it's a whole unique experience as well," she said with a smile.


This is just a snapshot of a place in a person's life, even if the snapshot happens to include the most famous of all sporting trophies. It is not a summation or definition of that life. What happens next, what path Darren McCarty and his family follow moving forward, is unknown. In that way they are no different than anyone else. But maybe a snapshot like this makes that path a little easier to see, provides more stable footing on which to travel.

Later, in the driveway, Cheryl, whom Darren met while playing junior hockey in Belleville, pauses likewise to answer the question about what a day like this means.

"This is absolutely the best ending you could hope for. I'm extremely happy for Darren and what he's achieved," she said.

"Darren was in a place that I'm sure he never thought this would be possible. He's in a good place now."

Then, as if on cue, a piece of cauliflower sails through the air, glancing off Cheryl's leg. Darren McCarty grins and walks away, the Cup in its place, his children playing nearby.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.