MCCARTY SCORES ‘MIRACLE’ IN RETURN

He skated down the middle and the puck caromed his way, a gift from the goalie, a gift, some would say, from God above. Darren McCarty had only to put his stick out and bang it forward, a move a hockey player could do while under anesthesia. He did. The red light lit. And McCarty let out a scream.

On the 72nd anniversary of the Red Wings’ first-ever Stanley Cup, it figured that the older guys might rule the day. There was Chris Chelios, 46, who set the NHL record for most postseason games (248). There was Dominik Hasek, 43, brilliant despite a brief meltdown in the second period that had fans hiding their eyes. There was Nick Lidstrom, nearly 38, who scored the second Detroit goal and Kris Draper, nearly 37, who scored the third.

But the highlight was McCarty, who scored the first – and in so doing, choked up half of Joe Louis Arena in Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Nashville Predators. At 36, McCarty may be the youngest of that group, but he has lived the hardest. He has put on the most miles. Many of us never expected to see him back on the ice again – let alone in his old Detroit uniform. The script on McCarty was to be a sad but familiar one: good guy, bruising hockey player, falls in with the party life, blows his money, loses his family, gets lost in alcohol, dope and gambling debts, disappears off the face of the earth.

McCarty did all except the last part. And he escaped that only because he was thrown a rope by some special people. But there he was in Game 2, on the scoreboard, and the fans thundered the rafters as his goal was announced: “First of the playoffs, No. 25, Darren McCarty …”

Welcome back to the stat sheet, D-Mac.

Another chance

On the way down the stairs after the game, I passed Ken Holland, the Wings’ GM. I asked him about McCarty’s goal.

“I was so happy for him,” Holland said. “What a great story.” It was Holland who first scouted a young McCarty back in the early 1990s, and Holland who took a chance on an aged, troubled version this winter.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I noted.

“Hey, he helped us win three Stanley Cups,” Holland said.

Moments later, in the locker room, Draper stood beaming a few feet away from McCarty, who was surrounded by media. It was Draper who extended his hand at a now mythic lunch last November at a deli in Bloomfield, where an out-of-shape McCarty, reportedly in a red Mohawk and his rock band cap, pleaded for a chance to turn his life around.

“He’s worked for everything,” said Draper, who got McCarty back into the gym. “To think of how far he’s come since (then) to now scoring an NHL playoff goal … everybody in this state is happy for him.”

Nobody more than the man himself.

Angels and D-Mac

It has been two years since McCarty scored in the NHL. Two years of end-of-bench hockey, minor league hockey and no hockey. Sitting by his locker now, his hair short and brown, his weight down, only the broad colorful arm tattoos a reminder of the wilder life, he was asked if he ever thought that 2006 goal would be the last one.

“Oh, yeah,” he admitted. “For a while.”

Chelios, Draper, Lidstrom, McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom – who scored Game 2’s last goal – were all on the team that won the last Cup in 2002. But the other guys never left. McCarty has been to hell and back. Divorced, in rehab, in debt, in denial. To see him sweating by his locker again, a bandaged cut above his right eye, is to believe that not every sad story is helpless.

“I truly am blessed in my life,” McCarty said. “To realize that and to have appreciation and gratitude for it … makes me know that I’m on the right track.”

Someone asked how special this particular goal was, and he said it went “in the special box … I know I’m on the right path, because miracles keep happening.”

There are a lot of angels around Darren McCarty these days. On Saturday, one may have sent him a puck. The rest, he must do himself. But D-Mac is back on the stat sheet. Old doesn’t feel so old this morning.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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