WINGS AREN’T THE SAME WITH MCCARTY AT HOME

ALTHOUGH IT IS fashionable these days for Detroit athletes to announce their retirement — often in a foreign country — there is one man who wants desperately to be in uniform and will instead be sitting at home tonight, watching on TV, as his team opens its season.

Can the Red Wings really be starting without Darren McCarty?

Isn’t that like the fire truck leaving without the dalmatian? Like the Beatles taking the stage without Ringo? McCarty, whose entire career has been with Detroit, may not be the biggest star with the gaudiest stats, but he is as integral to that Red Wings locker room as sticks and tape.

And he isn’t there.

Over money.

Now, I know that money is to sports as religion is to Ireland. But not with the Red Wings. They like to wrap up their business. Steve Yzerman? Rip up the old contract, give him a new one. Nick Lidstrom? Chase him around Sweden, get him back in the fold.

What the Wings want, they usually pay for. And McCarty is hardly the most expensive coat on the rack.

Which may be the problem. The Wings can empty the money truck for Yzerman or Lidstrom, because how many players could even hope to compare talent? But McCarty? He’s one of those grinding, bleeding, sweating balls of energy that gives you everything except big statistics.

And a lot of Wings could say the same.

And some of them will soon be free agents.

Which makes McCarty the last thing you want to be during negotiations:

A lead domino.

He stood up for Draper

“I never thought this would happen,” McCarty said from his home Friday. “It’s starting to settle in that I’m not going to be there (tonight). It’s tough.

“I’m trying not to take it personally. But I’m an emotional person. And the emotion is that you’re unwanted.”

Unwanted? Darren McCarty? That’s hard to write, much less imagine. Do you remember the night he pummeled Colorado’s Claude Lemieux into a bloody mess, in retaliation for the season-ending cheap shot Lemieux had laid on Kris Draper the year before?

I was never a fan of that violence. I’m still not. But even I know how many Wings said that was the turning point in their belief that they would topple Colorado and win the Stanley Cup.

Someone had to be willing to step up and take that stand. And, for all their talent, it wasn’t going to be Yzerman or Lidstrom.

I’m not saying the money McCarty seeks is too much, too little or perfectly justified. And I understand the Wings’ concern that if they overpay him, they’ll be forced to overpay guys like Martin Lapointe, Slava Kozlov and Draper.

But I also understand the kind of intangibles McCarty brings to the table. He will slam into anyone, grind for any puck, flip over on his butt and get right back up skating.

He is the first guy to stand up for a teammate. He’ll make the play that leads to the play that scores the goal. Once in a while — as in the final game of the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs against Philadelphia — he will put in the big puck himself.

But mostly he will set an example, of selfless play, team spirit, toughness, loyalty and doggedness. He also takes the media heat off of more reticent teammates by being the first guy out for the microphones.

Sure, that boosts McCarty’s profile, but that’s missing the point. The point is, a championship team is not a collection of the most talented players. It is a collection of players who fit together. And removing McCarty would leave a hole in the middle of the puzzle.

He wants another million

“I’ll always consider myself a Red Wing, until somebody tells me otherwise,” McCarty said. Meanwhile, he works out across the river, with the Windsor Spitfires, sharing a locker room with Sergei Fedorov’s younger brother, telling kids on the team about life in the big show.

His agent and Ken Holland, the Red Wings’ GM, exchange frequent phone calls, and the dialogue seems amiable enough. But McCarty, 27, says he knows what he’s worth and doesn’t want to budge. And the Wings say the price is too high. Over a three-year deal, they are about $1 million apart.

“We know Darren brings more than points,” Holland said. “But our offer reflects that.”

Funny. Just up the road, the Pistons are facing the departure of Bison Dele, a guy with plenty of talent but — unlike McCarty — very little dedication. The Pistons gave him a rich and long contract. And last season, during the playoffs, he let them down when they needed him most.

Now, just before training camp, he wants to quit. It’s a disaster for the Pistons, who not only rue the day they paid for Dele’s skills, but who also went out this off-season and signed back Michael Curry, a role player who they wrongly thought they could do without.

There’s a lesson there for the Red Wings. You get what you pay for. Tonight, McCarty — who, like Dele, could easily be a thousand miles away — will instead be glued to the TV set, because, he says, “The Wings are still my team.”

They’d be better off with him back in the picture.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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