Darren McCarty deserves spot in Detroit Red Wings’ rafters as part of ‘Hockeytown’ origin

Detroit Free Press

It went by a lot of names. “Bloody Wednesday,” “the Brawl in Hockeytown,” “Fight Night at the Joe” and some others. Maybe you have a favorite. And if you made up your own nickname, you’re not alone. Darren McCarty did, too.

“For lack of a better term, it’s ‘Red Wing D-Day,’ right?” McCarty told me recently. “Because you can go to that date and you can narrate the story of the organization, from my perspective and my history and everything else, from that date.

“You can go forward, you can go after and everything else. It doesn’t matter how old you are. That’s where it all starts.”

I have McCarty on the phone and he sounds like an over-caffeinated rhino who got into the Mountain Dew and is ready to charge. He’s hepped-up on nostalgia and happily chirping away about one of his favorite memories from one of his favorite days.

March 26, 1997.

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Every few years, I call McCarty to talk about this day. We both like talking about it. He’s the Detroit Red Wings icon who was in the eye of the storm that day. I’m a Detroit sportswriter, but also a hockey fan. And if you’re a hockey fan, you love this day. Hell, if you’re a sports fan, you should love this day. If you’re a fan of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, karma and payback, you should love this day.

Because on this day 25 years ago, justice was served — Detroit-style — and McCarty doled out the largest portion, pummeling Claude Lemieux like a jackhammer. It was a meeting and a beating 301 days in the making after Lemieux cheap-shotted Kris Draper — and basically broke his whole face — in the 1996 Western Conference finals. The Avs dispatched the Wings, winners of 62 regular-season games, in that game on their way to the Stanley Cup, and Lemieux never apologized.

“This is where I tell people, if he would have apologized, it probably wouldn’t have got this deep,” McCarty said of the vicious beating he gave Lemieux. “But I American History X’d his head on the boards. I slammed his head so hard on the boards, he’s still got a scar to this day to remind him not to treat people badly.”

After McCarty got in his blows, and after all the fists were thrown — 10 fights for 39 penalties and 148 penalty minutes — McCarty landed the last haymaker by scoring in overtime.

Two months later, the Wings knocked out the Avs in the conference finals. Then McCarty scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers  ending the Wings’ 42-year drought, with more grown men crying in Joe Louis Arena than anyone could count. It was literally a catharsis, a cleansing of the soul two generations in the making.

[ Order the Free Press book commemorating Red Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup ]

But it all started on March 26, 1997. McCarty calls it the team’s D-Day. I tell him I consider it the day that launched the origin story of the modern Wings, who went on to win four Cups in 11 years.

“Yeah, it’s the origin story, but then you need to go deeper,” he said. “You’ve got to go back to ‘The Hobbit.’ It’s like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ You’ve got to go back to the previous one because it doesn’t make sense unless you see the struggle to get to the top of the mountain and how it epitomized that, and this was the game that we were tough enough, we were good enough.

“They weren’t going to hold us down. Because you’re coming off of 62 wins and then they do that and disrespect ya, I mean for lack of a better term, it’s like you’re getting bitch-slapped around.”

Yes, there was the previous season. And the season before that, getting swept by the New Jersey Devils in the ’95 Cup Final. But that was prelude. The origin of this mighty franchise, the genesis of the new generation of the Winged Wheel, didn’t really start up until the team threw down on that bloody Wednesday.

I firmly believe that if McCarty doesn’t pummel Lemieux, and the Wings don’t win that game, they don’t eventually become the kind of powerhouse team that attracts Hall-of-Fame free agents like Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Dominik Hasek. They don’t become the kind of team that prompts Marian Hossa to reject $80 million from Edmonton.

I firmly believe if the Wings don’t beat and beat up the Avs on March 26, 1997, they don’t go on and win the Cup that year — or maybe ever.

“No, we had to win the game,” McCarty said. “(Brendan) Shanahan says it best in ‘The Russian Five.’ The psychological advantage that we gained after that game propelled us to win in six games (against the Avs in the conference finals). I don’t care what it is. It turned the tide back for the good guys.

“But the fact that we all did it together. The Aaron Wards stepping, fighting their tough guy, (Brent) Severyn, and not getting killed. Jamie Pushor and Shanny fight, the goalies fight, all this stuff. We were all committed, no matter what.

“And that game wasn’t easy, like life’s not easy. We were down the whole game and stuff, but to get the revenge and stay in the game and then to score the winner — and that’s just how it played out.”

I’ve always wanted to ask McCarty a question about that game and that season. To me, the McCarty Holy Trinity consists of him fighting Lemieux, scoring the OT winner in that game, then scoring the Cup-clincher against Philly with one of the sweetest moves you’ll ever see. So I’ve always wanted to know which moment is his favorite.

“What was first, bro?” McCarty shot back. “I’m a huge history guy. It’s a topple effect.

“Now, again, D-Mac’s gonna tell you, ‘Wow, man! What about my goal, man? Dingle, dangle! It’s all about me!’ ”

To clarify, please know McCarty has two sides to his personality: D-Mac, the wild man who played with bellicose swagger, and Darren, the mature and calm voice of reason. He sometimes answers with the personality that best suits the question.

“But it’s not that,” Darren said, silencing D-Mac. “It’s about the history and where it steps in, because the biggest thing is where you left your mark. You left people a memory that you were there. To me, it’s more about culture. It’s more about who I am, which is standing up for my brothers, and it’s life.”

Yes, it was all of that. And more. And the more is McCarty. He knows it and doesn’t shy away from the truth with false modesty. He embraces everything about that day and his role in it.

“It was about winning the game and how much it meant and the whole feeling throughout, no matter where you were,” he said. “But at the end of the game, I scored the goal after getting revenge. So I slayed the dragon, got the girl. The proverbial mess was lifted over Winged Wheel nation and the whole universe, no matter where you were.”

Mitch Albom proved prophetic when he wrote in the Free Press after that game: “Darren McCarty will never pay for a meal in this town again.” McCarty still gets offers for free meals and drinks, because the fans know what he means to this franchise.

“All the time, all the time, all the time,” he said. “I don’t drink anymore, and I’ve got my own cannabis line, so that’s OK. But I do appreciate the meals and stuff like that. But I just appreciate the camaraderie.”

McCarty works as a stadium analyst for games at Little Caesars Arena. He walks openly through the concourse when he’s done and he’ll stop and talk to any fan if he isn’t running late. I wondered what fans ask him the most. He said they bring up different memories of his career, which he quickly flips like a judo move by asking fans about their memories.

“I know where I was. Where were you?” he said. “What do you remember, whether it was this night or something else? It’s the whole thing, it’s the connection. I always say, I’m a battery and the people are my power.”

Steve Yzerman is no less than a deity in Detroit. Nicklas Lidstrom was the “perfect human” who never made a mistake on the blue line. They’re the two players from the Wings’ consecutive Cup-winning seasons whose jerseys hang from the rafters. Sergei Fedorov’s jersey should probably hang there, too, one day.

But then there’s McCarty. The most imperfect of them all. The demigod with demons. He made poor choices with his money and battled alcoholism. He was the underdog’s underdog. Mike Ilitch used to call him “Rocky.”

That’s why McCarty is the most Detroit of all the Red Wings. The champion who fought back in a city whose symbol is a fist. The ultimate grinder in a town made of grit. It might be too much for the Ilitch family to one day honor this man with his name and number in the rafters, but statistics don’t tell you everything about what a player has meant to a team, a city and its fans.

Until that happens, let’s call March 26 what McCarty calls it, but with a slight alteration. Let’s call it what it really is: D-Mac Day.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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