Jimmy Carson grabbed the water bottle, took a swig, and spat. He had just punched in the tying goal on a power play. Minutes earlier, he’d made an assist on the Wings’ first goal against St. Louis since November, a pretty pass to Ray Sheppard that turned to money. Now they called Carson’s name on the loudspeaker: “RED WINGS GOAL, HIS 24TH OF THE SEASON . . . ” A teammate slapped his helmet from behind. Nice going. Carson almost smiled. Decent night, for a third-stringer.

You can lose Jimmy Carson on this team. That is a blessing and a curse, but it is not the way the kid expected it. He came back to this town four years ago with more fanfare than a royal wedding. The headlines were dripping with sentiment. “JIMMY COMES MARCHING HOME” and “RETURN OF THE LOCAL HERO.” Carson was not from Medicine Hat, or Moose Jaw, or Cows Toes, or any other Canadian dot on the map. He was from right around the corner, Grosse Pointe, local kid. And he was joining the team of his dreams, bringing with him a reputation as a scorer. Only two teenagers have ever had 50 goals in an NHL season. One is Wayne Gretzky. The other is Jimmy Carson.

But from that opening press conference, when he pulled on the red and white sweater and blinked in the light of 100 flashbulbs, things have rarely gone the way Carson expected. The Wings were already blessed with one All-Star center, Steve Yzerman, and they got another the next season in a rookie flash from across the ocean, Sergei Fedorov.

Next thing Carson knows, he’s third-string. And now there are nights when he gets 11 minutes of ice time, and nights when he gets even less. Stats sing his praises

And yet, the facts about Carson do not lie. When he plays, he scores. When the power play arises, he scores then, too — more than any other Red Wing this season. In gambler’s terms, Carson is a guy who cashes in his chips. His point total (48) is third on the team, his goal total (24) is second only to Yzerman, and comparing their ice time is like comparing summer in Michigan to winter in Michigan.

“Sure, I think about that,” Carson said after the Wings beat St. Louis, 5-3, Thursday night. “But I’ve learned to accept less ice time. That’s the way it is when you have three good centermen.”

“Do you ever feel unappreciated?” he is asked.

He almost grins, then catches himself. Finally, he says, “By who?”

This is a typical Carson response. He is smart and he is vocal, and he is not afraid of his own opinions, and because of this, he doesn’t always rub people the right way. He is, for example, an outspoken Republican, he likes politics — that gets you funny looks in sports — and when he’s not espousing the virtues of Rush Limbaugh, he may be confronting the coach, Bryan Murray, speaking up when he feels his ice time is too limited. A lot of hockey players won’t do that. Carson will.

“Sometimes I think about being somewhere else,” he admits. “A place where statistically, it might be better for me. But I like it here, and I hope to win a Stanley Cup with this team. And if you want to do that, you have to accept certain things.”

As difficult, on some nights, as that may be. He has no regrets

Carson was not chosen as a star of the game Thursday night. He did not come out for a curtain call, even though his assist got the Wings off their slow start, and his goal got them back to even against the Blues. This is not unusual. They don’t yell Carson’s name at Joe Louis Arena. They yell,
“Probie! Probie!” when they want Bob Probert to kick the snot out of someone, and they yell, “Chevy!” and “Sergei!” and “Stevie!” They roar for fights and they boo when things get slow, and in general they act like a bored wrestling crowd. And maybe, in some ways, that’s what regular-season hockey is.

But you still win games by scoring goals, and Carson does that. Even Murray, who has his hands full juggling this kid, has to admit that.

“Jimmy is a great offensive force, you can’t deny that. We chuckle sometimes because the pucks come up high on his stick and then, next thing you know, it’s going in the net,” Murray says.

What more do you need to know? You have a quarterback who throws end-over-end? If it gets to the receiver, what do you care? A basketball player who shoots underhand? If it swishes, who cares?

Carson is 24, and this is probably his best offensive season, if you take points and divide them by minutes. What is his reward for this? Every time there is trade talk, his name is the first mentioned.

“I’m not the kind of guy who looks back,” he says. “I don’t have regrets over anything. A lot of players go through what I’m going through. What can I do?”

Carson shrugs and rubs ointment on his elbow. The local hero heads back to his locker.

We want our athletes to be many things, role models, quote machines, good Samaritans. But at the end of the night, all you can really ask is that a player does what he’s paid to do.

Jimmy Carson, paid to score goals, is doing that, as well as any guy in town. Whether anyone notices is another story.

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