Appeared in the December 2013 Real Detroit Weekly
The first thing you notice about Darren McCarty are his hands. Big, puffy, and battered they engulf yours when shaking. These are the hands that are responsible for so many moments in Detroit lore. These are the hands that pummeled Claude Lemieux. The hands that gracefully scored the 1997 Stanley Cup-clinching goal. The hands that lifted the Cup four times.
But once you get past his hands – and sheer size of McCarty – he quickly reveals himself to be a personable, gentle man, a surprise given the type of the player he was on the ice.
McCarty retired from the Red Wings in 2009 but has hardly left the public eye. His off-the-ice struggles have become a thing of legend. He did all the drugs, slept with all the women and spent all the money. And in his new book, My Last Fight, he doesn’t hold back when talking about it.
“There were some times when I didn’t want to write something, but my wife made me,” McCarty said. ‘She knows all the stories and she would be like, ‘Oh we have to bring this up.’ And I would be like, ‘shit, really?’ If I was going to do this, I had to do it honestly. What’s the sense in painting a rosy picture when it’s not? Paint it the way it is. The only way I can move forward is I can’t lie to myself.”
On December 7, McCarty had a book signing at Costco in Roseville. The line stretched around the corner all the way to the coffins (they have everything there). All 400 copies of his book were sold that day and McCarty stayed an hour after he was scheduled to be finished to sign everyone’s book, while stopping to take pictures and listen to countless stories. He was like a presidential candidate. He shook everyone’s hand. He held babies. A woman left in tears after meeting him. And once he finished the public signing, he went to sign for and meet store employees. With his accommodating nature, it’s easy to see how McCarty could let himself get taken advantage of.
“He never stands up for himself,” his wife Sheryl, whom McCarty wrote the last chapter of his book about. She is perpetually at his side and has taken on the role of McCarty’s muse, inspiring him to finish the book and work at getting healthy.
The book is full of funny stories and new looks into the teams that meant so much to Detroit. And it doesn’t shy away from the darker sides, not always portraying himself in the best light in the pursuit of truth.
If you stumbled across McCarty the first few years after he retired, he looked more homeless than professional athlete. He was missing teeth, his hair was long and dirty and sported a beard. He candidly talks about drinking a mind-blowing 15-20 beers a day along with a fifth of vodka, something his wife corroborates.
“For a couple years there, I just didn’t give a fuck,” McCarty said. “I would drink from waking up to passing out.”
Today McCarty, 41, looks much better. He’s clean shaven with a closely cropped haircut and is fully-toothed. He looks like Darren McCarty again.
McCarty often talks fondly about former Red Wing Bob Probert, one of his best friends and someone he looked up to. Like McCarty, Probert was no stranger to fighting – or drugs and drinking. After Probert died in 2010, it inspired McCarty to write his own story down and he found therapeutic.
“The one thing that I’ve learned through everything with (Bob Probert) leading the way is the difference between me and him is he didn’t know where the line was. I know where the line is and I’ll push that line and be hanging over the edge and come back.”
One chapter of his book he addressed the often sad stories of other enforcers after retiring while they’ve dealt with brain damage and depression, and McCarty admits to feeling “foggy” at times.
“I don’t believe in getting rid of fighting in hockey,” McCarty said. “It’s hard to believe you don’t know what you are signing up for. You don’t care. If you told me when I was 21 when I was drafted that I could have a successful career, win four Cups but I might have some serious brain injury when I’m 40, 50, 60? I’m in.”
But that’s the reality for McCarty. He remembers Dino Ciccarelli telling him to enjoy playing while it lasted because it goes by in a flash (to which McCarty remembers thinking, “shut up, old man”). Now one of McCarty’s biggest struggles is finding his new identity.
“My Last Fight is about addiction but it’s also about my fight between my identity between Darren and number 25,” he said. “It took me a long time and I still don’t completely separate them. When I was younger and wild and crazy it was like that but it would never end. I fed off it. The thing is it’s very dangerous, it’s like nuclear energy. You can only use so much of it before it explodes.”
McCarty will reprise his role as number 25 as he plays in the Alumni Game on New Year’s Eve as a part of the Winter Classic outdoors at Comerica Park. He said he’s most excited to see his old teammates. The game itself? Well, not so much.
“The whole atmosphere downtown and everything going on is great for the city, it’ll be a lot of fun,” McCarty said. “I miss the guys, the locker room, the travel, messing around. I do not miss working out, I do not miss playing.”
While Detroit certainly loves their athletes, they’ve always had an especially soft spot for McCarty. His tough-guy role on the team as well as his big personality off it by doing things like fronting his rock band Grinder drew in fans even more. He subtitled his book “The True Story of a Hockey Rock Star” and he talks excited about how much music is a part of his life. He has a chapter on his offseason band Grinder (and all the money he spent on it) and tells stories of partying with rock stars. But his love of music real, titling each chapter of the book after song lyrics.
“Being around music and writing songs, it’s always been a release,” he said. “The book is like a big song in that sense. I wanted the book to be different. I tried to come up with a song for every chapter for the title that would put you in the mood for the chapter. I like all those songs but they had to fit the chapter. And they had to be honest.”
After rehab stints, marriages, ups and downs, McCarty is starting to come to peace with his life after hockey.
“I don’t live with regrets,” McCarty said. “I regret some of the things that have happened or been hurt along the way, but I’ve never lived that way because I wouldn’t be here as me if I did. I still carry a lot of guilt and shame around and I’m working on that. I lived more than most people combined. Life’s an adventure. It’s a new chapter, another fresh start for me.”