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Catching up with Darren McCarty

Former Red Wings forward discusses defeating personal demons, Gordie Howe's teacup poodle, winning Stanley Cup

by Cutler Klein @CutlerKlein / Staff Writer's "Catching Up With" series features notable NHL alumni, including reflections on their careers and lives after hockey.

Darren McCarty's most famous battle on the ice might have been with Claude Lemieux in 1997, but his biggest fight in retirement has been with himself.

The former Detroit Red Wings forward battled addiction and alcoholism his entire NHL career and beyond but is eight months sober and said he feels better than he ever has, thanks to the support of his wife, Sheryl, Red Wings executives and former teammates, including Kris Draper, Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan.

"I've gotten support from the top from [Red Wings owners] Mr. [Mike] and Mrs. [Marian] Ilitch to [Red Wings general manger] Ken Holland, [Draper], who's been my boy through it all, [Yzerman] and guys like Paul Coffey, [Shanahan] and Nick Lidstrom," McCarty said this month.

"We're a brotherhood. They're like your brothers and they're happy that you finally found some peace of mind and you're not suffering as much anymore. They've been a great support system. The biggest one is my wife. Without my wife, I probably wouldn't be alive. She was a godsend to me after I retired and pretty much saved my life. Life is good now."

McCarty, 44, retired in December 2009 and moved to Florida after a brief stint in broadcasting. In 2013, he wrote a book with USA Today's Kevin Allen, "My Last Fight: The True Story of a Hockey Rock Star." In it, he describes his wild lifestyle and how it put him in rehab for the first time in 1996. His ex-wife, Cheryl, said she would keep him from his son, Griffin, unless he cleaned up. McCarty went to rehab, sobered up and ended up having his best NHL season in 1996-97, reaching career highs in goals (19), assists (30) and points (49), and winning the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings.

Ten years later, when he was with his Calgary Flames teammates in Hawaii, McCarty relapsed. His family in Michigan staged an intervention, and he went back to rehab. McCarty returned to the Red Wings in 2007-08 and won the Stanley Cup with them for a fourth time before retiring after playing 13 games early in the 2008-09 season. His problems returned again, but when Sheryl entered his life, he gave up drinking and drugs to stay with her.

After the book was published, McCarty moved back to Detroit with his wife and began working in commercial real estate for Cushman and Wakefield, where he is vice president of business development.

McCarty spoke with on his way to the golf course, where he spends a lot of his free time. The lead singer of the band Grinder during his NHL career, he said he still grabs the microphone every once in a while, singing at karaoke.

Video: 1997 Cup FInal, Gm4: Darren McCarty's skillful moves

One of the most iconic moments of McCarty's career came on March 26, 1997, against the Colorado Avalanche. During a brawl in the first period, McCarty got into a rough fight with Lemieux, who had broken Draper's jaw in Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Final.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup less than three months later, and McCarty said that game helped spark their playoff run and eventual sweep against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup Final.

"Without that game, I don't think we would have evolved as a team," he said. "You have to realize it's not because of the fight and exacting revenge on Lemieux. It's because the year before, we had won 62 games, like the Golden State Warriors in the NBA (who won 73) this year, which no one's going to remember has the league record for most wins in a season.

"That was us in the NHL at the time. We lost to Colorado in the conference final that year and hadn't beaten them throughout the 1996-97 season. They were our nemesis. The fact that we were able to get a little revenge on Lemieux was nice but also going into the third period, we were down 5-3, and won the game in overtime, and I scored the winner."

McCarty went on to score one of the biggest goals in Red Wings history during Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final against the Flyers. He took the puck at center ice, went inside-out on Philadelphia defenseman Janne Niinimaa and deked around goaltender Ron Hextall to score the game-winner in Detroit's 2-1 Cup-clinching victory. The Red Wings had not won a Stanley Cup in 42 years.

"I've beat guys 1-on-1 my whole career," he said. "It's all timing, I tell the young kids. Obviously, for what it meant, as a kid growing up in the area in Leamington, Ontario, it's a great thing to look back on it and know I left my mark like that."

Even though the Detroit-Colorado rivalry was anything but friendly during his playing days, McCarty said he has a great relationship with some of the Avalanche players. He and Lemieux are friends and have done charity signings together. He always enjoys a conversation with Joe Sakic and got to know Ray Bourque after retiring. McCarty got the chance to see them all again, along with some of his Red Wings teammates, at the 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series Alumni Game in Denver last season.

"It's always great," he said. "It was great to see [Yzerman] come back and it was great to see a lot of the other guys we don't get to see a lot. That's the great thing. This year, we get to go do it for the Centennial [Classic] in Toronto [on Jan. 1]. It just seems like every year, it's sort of like a reunion.

"A lot of people have their alumni and stuff like that from their fraternities and colleges. Well, these are my frat brothers. To get together every year and be able to reminisce is pretty sweet."

McCarty joined the scores of Red Wings alumni who mourned the death of the legendary Gordie Howe in June. He shared one story about Howe and his beloved dog.

"The best story about [Howe] is that he used to have a dog, a teacup poodle, probably weighed about 5 pounds," McCarty said. "His name was Rocket, after Maurice 'Rocket' Richard. That dog went everywhere with him. Howe would be in the dressing room, and the dog would be with him. About four years ago, my wife got a teacup poodle named Dolce. Gordie proved that you can be big and tough and soft with a 5-pound dog.

"I got a 5-pound dog because Gordie made it cool."

McCarty said he hopes Red Wings fans remember him for his team-first attitude, effort and his championships.

"I want to be remembered as a guy that gave everything he had," he said, "and when you ask any of his teammates about him, that everybody loved him as a teammate. That's all you want. You want to be known as a great teammate and a guy that you know had your back.

"And, obviously, a winner."

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