Kris Draper noticed a difference in his old friend right away.
A few months ago, when Darren McCarty began to practice for Friday’s Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche alumni game in Denver, it was the best Draper had seen his old Grind Line mate in years.
McCarty told Draper then that he had quit drinking again. He told the Free Press recently that he’s in a good spot in his life at age 43 largely because of it.
“That’s my demon,” McCarty said of drinking. “It had to be me. My wife had been supportive, and it had to come to a point to me. Got tired of feeling like it was owning me.
“I’ve had different stints. This one is different, I think. I feel differently now anyways.”
McCarty said one reason for that is he’s “properly medicated and blessed to live in the state of Michigan.” He said medical marijuana has helped him immensely.
“It saved my life,” he said. “I’d be dead without it.”
McCarty, a skilled enforcer with an outgoing personality who became a fan favorite in Detroit, has battled off-ice problems through the years — from alcohol and marijuana to financial and marital strife. He won three Stanley Cups, had his contract bought out by the Wings in 2005 partly because he spent too much time with his band “Grinder,” then came back and won another Cup in 2008.
“The one thing I’ve never done with Darren is judge him,” Draper said. “I’ve always been there as a friend and will continue to be.
“He’s different. This is a different Darren McCarty that I see. When we’re skating, he interacts with everybody. It’s awesome to see. I can tell you right now if he doesn’t come for a skate, he sends me a text and says, ‘I got a meeting.’ He seems very responsible.”
General manager Ken Holland was the Wings’ chief scout when they drafted McCarty in the second round in 1992. Holland said McCarty won him over in a predraft interview.
“He could stand up for his teammates, physical presence,” Holland said. “He would sign autographs, take pictures. He wasn’t above anybody. He was one of us. He’s from Leamington, across the river. There was a whole lot embodied in who Darren McCarty was that led to his importance to the Red Wings and to his relationship with the fan base.”
Some of McCarty’s biggest moments came against the Avs — from making Claude Lemieux “turtle” in a fight in 1997 and then scoring the overtime goal in the same game to scoring a hat trick in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on the way to a third Cup in 2002.
Red Wings vs. Avs memories: ‘They let us go to war’
Holland said he was emotionally attached to McCarty. That made it more difficult when he decided to cut ties with him. He opted to buy out McCarty’s contract to help get under the salary cap after the lockout canceled the 2004-05 season.
“I wanted him to curtail his activities away from hockey,” Holland said. “He was busy with the Grinder band.”
But that also was a reason he took a chance on him during what became a successful comeback attempt in 2008. McCarty played three regular-season games and 17 playoff games on a final Cup run. He played 13 more regular-season games in 2008-09 before retiring with 127 goals, 288 points and 1,477 penalty minutes.
McCarty’s friendship with Draper has endured. Draper was instrumental in McCarty’s comeback.
“When you have a friendship, friendships are worth fighting for, and I truly believe that with Mac,” Draper said. “There were some tough times for Darren and certainly tough times for our friendship. The one thing I told him was, ‘When you’re ready, I’ll always be there for you.’ The reason was, we had such a great friendship and accomplished so much together.
“I felt really proud of stepping up for him and being there for him and being part of that comeback. That was gratifying to see him hoist the Cup, knowing what he had been through.”
McCarty spent time living in Florida but is back in metro Detroit. He is vice president of business development for Cushman & Wakefield, a real-estate firm with offices in Southfield.
Joe Kocur, who runs the Wings’ alumni association, said McCarty skates as often as he can in games that help raise money for various charities. Kocur said McCarty recently skated in three alumni games in a day.
McCarty said playing in the Denver altitude wouldn’t have been possible had he not made significant changes in his life, including dropping about 20 pounds.
“I don’t want to have a coronary on the ice,” McCarty said. “That’s what they probably hope, the Denver fans. They’d love that. They’re hoping I’m coming in overweight and out of shape. Wouldn’t that be an end to that one?”
Draper looks forward to McCarty’s future.
“When he was fighting the demons, he was a different guy,” said Draper, now the Wings’ special assistant to the GM. “It seems like Darren McCarty is back. I’m excited to have my friend back. More importantly, I’m excited for Mac. He seems to be in a great spot.”
When a reporter mentioned McCarty remains one of the most popular athletes in Detroit, Draper couldn’t help but rib his buddy.
“It’s awesome,” McCarty said of the fan support he’s received. “What can I say?”
Draper shot back, “You can always thank your linemates.”
McCarty smiled and said, “I’d like to thank Drapes for keeping me alive off the ice. I keep him alive on the ice. He kept me alive off the ice.”
Draper responded, “That’s why we got along.”
McCarty said he wants to write another book because so much has happened to him since the first one.
“I’m the king of falling down and getting up,” McCarty said. “My life emulates the way I skate. It’s not pretty, but it is who I am.”
George Sipple, Detroit Free Press