GRAND RAPIDS - Darren McCarty made some bad choices a few years ago that cost him his place on the Red Wings. He has made some tough choices the past few months that earned him the chance to play again in Detroit.
On Monday, McCarty signed a contract with the Wings for the rest of the season for the league minimum - worth about $100,000 prorated - plus undisclosed incentives. McCarty, who turns 36 on April 1, will remain with the American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins for a two-week conditioning stint.
"It's a little bit of a flyer," general manager Ken Holland said. "... He's been in the playoffs before, he's a physical presence. ... He'll be back in early March, and it's up to Mike Babcock and the coaching staff to decide, and Darren to show, what he can do and where he fits in."
Probably no athlete in Detroit sports history has so publicly battled a series of demons as McCarty has. Alcohol. Marijuana. Gambling. Bankruptcy. Marital strife.
Even now, with the real possibility looming that he will don a jersey with a winged wheel for the first time in four years, McCarty has a personal life with loose ends, debts and ill will that stretch back to Alberta. On the ice, he still needs to lose weight and improve his conditioning.
New details of how he left for Michigan late last year paint a portrait, depending on your point of view, of a tortured soul trying to find himself or an opportunist who took the money - plus a truck - and ran, much as he has been running from bad situations of his own making his entire hockey life.
Over the weekend, after a morning skate with the Griffins, McCarthy reiterated that three things kept him focused: sobriety, family and hockey.
"I gotta keep my inner circle small," he said. "And I keep priorities in order, and there's like three of them. When I concentrate on them, then I'm fine. I don't have any room for anything else."
That includes his 20-month marriage to the former Anna Okuszko, his second wife, whom he met while playing for the Calgary Flames. In a Jan. 27 profile - under the headline "From Grind to Grace" - the Free Press documented McCarty's attempt to rebuild his family life and his hockey career in Michigan. But starting over here has caused incredible pain there.
Anna McCarty said he ran up $20,000 in charges to her credit card - much in cash advances from the casino where she worked - he left via her a Dear Jane letter and she felt abandoned and worthless. She also said she loved "Darren more than anything in this world."
McCarty, in typical standup fashion when asked about his demons, doesn't deny any of it.
"I do wish him the best of luck in his career," Anna McCarty said Monday. "But when that's all gone, where's he going to be? He sacrificed what was supposed to be most precious to him. Me."
She spoke from Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where she said she would have surgery today for a collapsed lung.
Anna McCarty, who was born in Poland and moved to Canada in 1984, said she stood by her husband through two rehabilitation stints and his bankruptcy caused by gambling losses and business troubles.
"Sometimes it's hard to accept the fact he's not coming back, even though I don't want him back," she said earlier this month. "I want to know why he could leave me. I'm not good enough for his friends in Detroit? I'm just a hairstylist. Why did he marry me? He needed me for a place to live and someone to take care of him for two years and then he was done with me?"
Reconnects with family, friend
Darren McCarty, a tough guy with his fights but skilled enough to score goals, was one of the most popular Wings in 1993-2004 and helped Detroit win Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002. But the Wings bought him out of his contract following the 2004-05 lockout, in part because of the NHL's new salary cap and in part because they felt he had become distracted with outside interests like his rock band, Grinder.
He spent the past two seasons in Calgary, where he met Anna, who also bartends at the Deerfoot Inn and Casino. His career, though, languished on the ice. He missed three months last season with a back injury, appeared in only 32 games and had no goals or assists.
Instead of receiving NHL offers as a free-agent forward, he heard from the Belfast Giants in Northern Ireland. "I would have been running away," he said, "and that wouldn't have been the best thing."
He worked on staying clean and made visits to Detroit to reconnect with his four children. He eventually reconnected with center Kris Draper, a former teammate and good friend.
"He's the closest thing to a brother that I have," McCarty said. "When you are doing things you're not proud of or not in a good place, you don't want the people closest to you or know you the best (around). ... It's the ones that care you push away the most. At least that's what I did."
After Draper pledged to help with his comeback, McCarty returned to Calgary and told his wife he would be returning to Detroit - alone.
They argued about that. On Dec. 4, 36 hours before they were to leave for a trip to Costa Rica she bought as a Christmas present for him, she came home from work and found a good-bye note.
It read: "I really didn't want it to come to this, but I understand fully now that you don't realize how important going back to Detroit is and how crucial the timing is. I never wanted to hurt you, but I'm following my path right now. I don't know what's going to happen, but I will be faithful, and hopefully when things die down, we will have a future. You did nothing wrong, you had and have no control. Only control over you as I do me. I'll call you in a few days. I need time to think."
Asked last weekend why it was so important to return to Detroit, McCarty said it was about getting involved again with his children and needing to do that by himself.
"She couldn't understand why she couldn't be a part of it, but it was something I had to do for me," McCarty said. "She said, 'If I can't go, that's it.'
"That's a sacrifice I had to make. It was nothing to do with her. I feel responsible and bad because she gets dragged into a situation that she only knows a small piece of. It's hard. It's a hard thing to do. But it was a sacrifice I had to make because it was about me being sober and me being a father and reconnecting with my kids, and I had to do that alone."
It wasn't a clean break, though. In addition to some clothes and hockey memorabilia - including the puck from his first goal with the Flames - McCarty left behind $20,000 in charges to a credit card he used but was in her name. Several cash advances were made from the Deerfoot Inn and Casino, including four separate charges totaling $8,908.67 on Dec. 1, three days before he left town.
Asked about the money he owed and the gambling, McCarty said: "When you're desperate you're looking for any reasons to try to make ends meet. Sometimes you get a little bit desperate. It wasn't a good situation. I decided to get out of that situation. I still owe. I'm trying to make good on it as quick as I can. She knows that."
But won't gaming continue to be a temptation in Michigan?
"There's lure anywhere," he said. "It's staying strong. The great thing about being in Detroit, there's no time. Family and obligations, being around the kids and having four of them, there's a lot of things to do."
Anna McCarty said Monday that her husband still owed about $6,000 on the credit card and needed to pay off the 2007 Chevy Avalanche he drove from Calgary to Detroit. And she had three other recent requests.
"I want him to pay off his credit card debt, put the truck in his name, pay for my tattoo removal ... give me my divorce and leave me alone so I can erase him out of my life," she wrote to the Free Press.
She has two tattoos, the first, on her back, includes four Chinese symbols and the No. 25 - McCarty's jersey. She's hoping to alter that to a 29 to mark the day she was born in 1977.
The other tattoo, on her stomach, is more problematic. It features intertwined wedding bands with his name and their wedding date. She surprised him with the tattoo when he was in rehab. "I can't keep it the way it is," she said.
He still has to prove himself
McCarty was unavailable for comment after his signing. Over the weekend, he said rededicating himself to hockey came only after he got sober and reunited with his children.
"They help me be the person and father I want to be," he said. "Now things are going well with that. It's enabled me to get back and realize how much I miss the game and love the game and expand my priorities from sobriety and family to putting hockey third. And that's the order they go in.
"I got the gold medal. The gold medal is getting the family back, the relationship with the kids. The hockey is a bonus. It's icing on the cake."
His comeback started in a Troy training center co-owned by Draper. He then went to the Flint Generals, an International Hockey League team partially owned by Draper. He scored three goals and three assists and had two fights and 30 penalty minutes in 11 games.
He was given a tryout with the Griffins. Holland, assistant general manager Jim Nill and vice president Steve Yzerman watched him play in person.
McCarty scored a hat trick as part of a four-point night in one game and tallied seven points, three fights and 19 penalty minutes all told in nine games. McCarty said he had lost about 15 pounds and needed to lose about five more to get under 220.
McCarty would love to step onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena again.
"Whatever's meant to be is meant to be," he said. "I like where I'm at mentally and the person I am. All the rest will work out and is out of my control."
Nothing has been guaranteed by Holland or coach Mike Babcock, who talks often about the importance of family and making smart decisions.
"I don't know him, OK?" Babcock said last week. "But he's lost his way and now he's got himself back on track.
"I got nothing but respect for the organization for standing by him."
Babcock said the chance to play must be earned.
"If you don't do it, you ain't playing. Period," Babcock said. "If you don't get down in weight and you can't play quick enough, it don't matter what you did in the past. We're about the present. Those guys who won all those Cups together are pumped that they did. But they're about the next one, believe me. If there's anything I've learned since I've been here is how competitive those guys are. They want the guys on the ice that can help us win.
"If you're in the present and you can do it, we want you. If you can help our team, you're playing. If you can't, you're not."
Wings fans almost certainly will welcome McCarty back, but he also knows some people who have followed the turmoil of his life - and now know about the final chapter in Alberta - will doubt he has changed.
"It's your action and how you present yourself and what you do," he said. "Whether there's skepticism, you just gotta show you're a different person. Talk's cheap. It is. It's just actions. Walking the walk and talking the talk. Showing day in and day out what's important and that things are different."
BY GEORGE SIPPLE • FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER