McCarty keeps demons in check
After years of binge drinking, partying, popular Red Wing takes control of his life
David Guralnick / The Detroit News
Craig McCarty, and his wife, Roberta, watch their son, Darren, and the rest of the Detroit Red Wings take on the Florida Panthers on Friday. Father and son are fighting their diseases together.
By John Niyo / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Darren McCarty was hung over -- again -- but he remembers the day three years ago when Red Wings Coach Scotty Bowman called him into his office during a team practice.
"It was one of those speeches: 'You're not bigger than the team.' He just said, 'I like you as a player; I like you as a person, but you can't keep doing this.'"
Yet Bowman's words didn't faze McCarty, the Wings' charismatic and popular enforcer, who after years of drinking was a full-blown alcoholic, an embarrassment to himself, his family, his friends and his sport.
But today -- through crisis and personal growth -- McCarty has rediscovered himself, his family and his team. Darren McCarty's world, which not long ago was spinning out of control, has suddenly found a comfortable orbit.
On Tuesday night, McCarty will mark his remarkable turnaround at the second annual celebrity benefit for the McCarty Cancer Foundation, which began as his idea after his father developed cancer.
"You know what (giving up drinking) did?" McCarty asks, sipping a Coke after a practice last week. "It slowed everything down. Everything used to go by so quick, so fast. Now everything ... makes sense."
He adds: "It's scary to think that if I'd kept going, I might not be here. Maybe not on this team, maybe not alive."
Riding the wave
He was a good drunk. "A great drunk, really," McCarty says.
The kind of drunk -- rarely violent, never afoul of the law -- who might have been fine had he been able to stick with beer. But McCarty, who arrived in Detroit in 1993 with a brutish playing style and a party-hard attitude, fell in love with tequila. And in a town that would soon fall in love with him, this would be trouble.
A native of Leamington, Ontario, McCarty figures he began drinking when he was 15. Now, a month shy of his 27th birthday, he says he knew he had a drinking problem by the time he was 20.
A second-round pick in the 1992 entry draft, McCarty was part of what would become the Wings' nucleus, a talented group of twentysomethings that eventually helped bring back-to-back Stanley Cup championships to Detroit.
Martin Lapointe, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and McCarty -- four Canadian-born kids -- all began their careers in Detroit that fall. And not surprisingly, they were together off the ice, almost inseparable, in fact, beginning with the lockout season of 1994-95. They lived together; they ate meals together; they went out together.
And they drank together. Detroit was Hockeytown, and they were hockey players, after all.
"We'd go out and drink beer and have fun and do our thing," says Draper, 27 "But when it was time to go home, we'd go home. And we'd be able to get up the next morning and go to practice. That was something Darren could never figure out.
"I would always say, 'Let's just do beer.' And he could do beer for a little while, but then he always had to put it in overdrive. Then it'd be shots and ... well, Darren never had closure at night. Once he started going, he wouldn't stop drinking until he couldn't drink anymore. It was kind of scary."
So it went, week after week, "riding the wave," as McCarty puts it. He was a binge drinker. Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night. "The days would just roll into the next," he says. "And I'd forget. Priorities would go out the window. It was all about me."
His parents, Craig and Roberta, worried from a distance. His wife, Cheryl, fretted at home. And even the team felt the effects of McCarty's binges.
"You didn't know which was a good day and which was a bad day because you didn't live his life," says Dave Lewis, an associate coach and a former NHL defenseman. "But there were days when you thought, 'Wow, what's going on?'"
"It really showed," Draper says. "If he was out drinking the night before, he was awful in practice the next day. Everyone knew, 'Oh, Mac's been boozin' again.' "
In the locker room, Steve Yzerman, the team captain, quietly pleaded with McCarty, his roommate on the road for two years. Yzerman had seen this before with McCarty's friend, Bob Probert, who was let go by Detroit after another alcohol-related incident after the 1993-94 season.
Yzerman had also seen the team unravel in the late 1980s thanks in large part to a widespread drinking problem. "But forget about what it meant to the team," Yzerman says now. "It was about (McCarty) as a person."
"I had (Paul Coffey) and Stevie harping on me for two years, saying, 'Hey, slow down,'" McCarty remembers. "But it'd be in one ear and out the other. I'd tell them what they wanted to hear. That's how it works: You tell yourself one thing and tell everyone else something different just to get by. ... You're lying to yourself mostly."
A lonely voice
Things got worse before they got better.
By the end of the 1995-96 season -- though McCarty became a father in May with the arrival of son Griffin -- the drinking had become unmanageable. A week after Griffin was born, the Wings were eliminated from the playoffs by Colorado. And shortly thereafter, McCarty hit his personal bottom.
Draper, severely injured in the Western Conference finals, says he left the hospital just in time to witness firsthand a weeklong McCarty binge during the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills in mid-June. A week later, he returned home to Toronto, weary and worried.
"When I left, he was going pretty hard," Draper says, shaking his head. "And when I would call, Cheryl would say, 'I don't know where he is.' Right then, I saw something was going wrong. I mean, he couldn't keep doing this to himself."
McCarty heard that from all the familiar voices. Still, as it almost always is with an alcoholic, Darren's voice was the only one that mattered.
"The most frustrating part," Roberta McCarty says, "was just knowing that with an alcoholic, nothing is going to happen until he decides he's got to do something about it."
"We felt guilty that we couldn't do more," Craig McCarty admits.
Darren felt guilt, too.
"Like when you finally sober up and you haven't been home in three or four days," says McCarty, who met Cheryl when he was 16 and married her in 1993. "You get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. ...
"Finally, Cheryl just told me, 'I love you to death and I always will, but I'm not going to let you do this to us. Doing it to me is one thing -- I can handle it because I know what you're like. But you're not going to do it to him, you're not going to do it to Griffin.' "
If there was a turning point, that would be it.
"I'm one of those people that if I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it," McCarty says. "And I always said to myself, 'If I ever have children, I'm never going to let them grow up without a father.' I realized that's where I was headed. ...
"It was time to stop and look in the mirror. What's more important, booze or your family?"
The family couldn't wait much longer. Too much was happening.
Shortly before Griffin was born, Craig McCarty had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer. Life expectancy with multiple myeloma, which attacks the blood and bone marrow, is 2-3 years.
Growing up, father and son -- McCarty's natural father left when he was 9 months old -- weren't particularly close. Darren's best friend was his mother's father, Robert Pritchard, who passed away in 1993. Pritchard, a kindred spirit, also battled alcoholism. But when he succumbed to cancer in 1993 -- "the most devastating experience of my life," Darren says now -- he, too, was sober.
Craig, who married Roberta when Darren was 5, worked 18-hour days as the owner of a small heating and air conditioning company. Darren came to work for him during summers as a teen-ager, and Craig actually fired him -- more than once -- for poor work habits.
Craig, the pragmatic one, had also been among those who tried to convince McCarty, cut from his Junior C hockey team at age 15, that dreams of the NHL were unrealistic.
In a roundabout way, both now realize Darren might never have made it had it not been for those differences. "He proved a lot of us wrong," Craig says.
Then father and son came face-to-face with mortality three years ago.
Roberta remembers the call that came in the first week of July. Darren told his father, "I've got a problem, I'm gonna get help."
Craig told his son, "You know what? We both suffer from a disease. Let's just lean on each other for support and maybe we can help each other get through this."
"And I think," Roberta says, "there developed a bond there that might not have developed otherwise. Each said, 'OK, I'm going to be here for you. We'll fight our fights together.' I don't know if that would have happened otherwise."
Darren McCarty spent two months in outpatient treatment at the Maplegrove Center for Chemical Dependency in West Bloomfield. He approached Red Wings' management warily about his problem, fearing repercussions, though the NHL's 1995 collective bargaining agreement allowed players to seek first-time help for substance abuse without punishment.
"It was terrible to have to go to the organization and say, 'Hey, I've got a problem,' " McCarty says. "I wondered what they would say. They've had so many guys before me with the same problems. Were they gonna say, 'We can't handle another guy like this' and wash their hands of me?"
Jimmy Devellano, the team's general manager, sat in stunned silence at first, but then thanked McCarty for taking the initiative. "The day Darren came in here was a wonderful day, really. ... I told him, 'Well, you've basically solved the problem.'"
While Darren was busy learning about his disease, his father was learning about his own sickness.
Chemotherapy left him unable to eat for weeks. There were setbacks and seizures. Doctor appointments were a daily occurrence as Craig McCarty underwent a bone marrow transplant.
"Obviously, you've got a lot of time to think," Craig says. "And of course we all want to be better parents, so you reflect on, 'What could I have done better?' But thing is, I'm sitting there thinking, 'You know what? I've got a good kid.' "
Time to celebrate
The kid came into his own that year, and so did the Red Wings.
Unlike the previous season, the 1996-97 campaign ended in jubilation. And along the way, McCarty, who found time for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week, gained notoriety. Not that he needed more.
First came the infamous March 26 brawl with the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena. That night, in the middle of a melee, McCarty went out of his way to pummel Claude Lemieux, whose crushing hit from behind had fractured Draper's jaw a year earlier.
Later, in overtime, it was McCarty who scored the winning goal as the Wings exorcised their demons.
In the Stanley Cup finals, it was another McCarty goal that sealed the Wings' triumph. After McCarty's end-to-end rush made the score 2-0 late in Game 4 of the Philadelphia sweep, the celebration began.
And so did his own questions.
"Even before the series started, I knew we're gonna win this Cup," says McCarty, who would parlay his success into commercial endorsements and even a headlining gig with a rock band. "And I knew that would be the toughest thing for me: How are you not gonna drink out of the Stanley Cup?"
Says Draper: "I don't think anyone would've blamed him that night if he'd had champagne."
McCarty avoided the traditional rite immediately after the game, sharing the moment instead with his family and savoring a victory cigar with Draper. Amid the pandemonium, he was consumed with private emotions.
"But then while we're spraying champagne around the locker room, Stevie (Yzerman) comes up to me and says, 'You know what, Mac? I'm with you tonight. I don't want to miss a minute of this,'" McCarty says, laughing at the memory.
"He said, 'Look at you -- you might be the only guy who remembers everything that goes on tonight. Doesn't it feel good?' "
It did and it still does, McCarty says. "We've won two cups since I've been sober. I'm not saying that's why, but that's a pretty good track record."
Fathers and sons
It's only fitting, everyone agrees, that son Griffin looks like Darren. He walks like him and acts like him, too.
"It is him," laughs Craig, the proud grandfather.
"Darren loves talking about his son," says Draper, who is thinking about starting a family of his own. "His eyes just light up when he talks about Griffin.
"And now here I am sleeping in until 11 a.m. and going to practice and he's up at 8 o'clock playing hockey with his son. He loves it. ... Darren finally has priorities in his life."
Priorities that don't include drinking, McCarty says, ignoring the whispers. McCarty counts several recovering alcoholics among his closest friends. One has been sober for three years. Another for five. And so on. McCarty stays in touch with Probert, too.
"I had a great role model in Probie," says McCarty, who is playing well in the final year of his contract. "And I had what he didn't have. He didn't have someone to look at and say, 'Hey, this is what could happen.' "
Now, like it or not, McCarty is the role model.
"I still go out," he says. "I love to go out in this town. But I don't drink. ... People will see you out, with a Coke, and think you're drinking or think that because you're being an idiot, that you're drunk. And that's something that I've learned to deal with. People are going to talk no matter what you do."
He adds: "Now there are more important things for me -- being a good father, a good husband."
And a good son, too. A year after he quit drinking, Darren gave Craig a Father's Day surprise. He established the McCarty Cancer Foundation, with a mission to raise awareness about multiple myeloma and funding for research.
Last year's benefit raised more than $200,000. To date, the foundation, which recently opened a new office in Berkley, has raised more than $600,000.
"We had our differences growing up," McCarty says. "And I resented him for a long time. But this has given us more common ground. In some ways, it's been a blessing."
Life has come full circle at last for Darren McCarty, who also has a new daughter, Emerson, just 6 months old.
"It's sad to say," he muses, "but sometimes it takes a traumatic thing to make things better."