Darren McCarty will never pay for a meal in this town again. In two explosive moments that embody all that is right with hockey and all that is wrong with it, McCarty made an unforgettable impression on this Detroit Red Wings season. In the first moment, he bloodied the game. In the second, he won it.
Let us begin with the first, late in the opening period Wednesday night, when he spun away from a linesman and coldcocked Colorado’s Claude Lemieux in the face.
Lemieux fell to his knees, fans jumped to their feet, and you could kiss any chance of a normal hockey game this evening good-bye. It was Fight Night now at Joe Louis Arena. And McCarty wasn’t finished. He whacked Lemieux again with a left- handed fist, and when Lemieux curled into a crouch, holding his bleeding face, McCarty held him by the back of the neck with one hand and swung repeatedly with the other, throwing punches that seemed to have the force of the entire, roaring building behind them.
Before he was done, McCarty would drag Lemieux, stunned and bloody, to the front of the Wings bench, like a caveman dragging his kill to the front of his cave, showing it off for the others. All that was missing was McCarty banging on his chest and doing a Tarzan yell.
But by that point, who would have noticed? The game had disintegrated into a series of bouts that made the Joe Louis ice look like the elimination rounds of a Toughman contest.
Not only were Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov — two of the more nonviolent and creative players in hockey — now rolling around like high school wrestlers, not only were stars like Brendan Shanahan and Adam Foote doing a muscle tango, but — and this is not an exaggeration — the two goalies were slugging it out at center ice.
The goalies? Yes. Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon, caught up in the violent spirit, now were swinging away beneath layers of thick clothing, their pads flopping, their pants baggy and wet as they spun, slapped, grasped, yanked and clawed at each other. Awkward? It was like watching sumo wrestling in a laundry pile.
This is what Wednesday was for much of the night, not a showdown between two of the best teams in hockey, not a rematch between last year’s Western Conference finalists, but a game in which you couldn’t see two minutes of skating without seeing five minutes of boxing, spinning, cursing, bleeding, slapping, yelling and taking a number in the penalty box.
And, of course, the game was completely altered. It is no accident that one goal was scored before McCarty pummeled Lemieux and six goals were scored in the next 21 minutes. You tend to lose your concentration when your face is dotted with bandages.
“For the first two periods the issue of winning the game seemed to be completely irrelevant,” admitted Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman.
But can anyone really be surprised? Fans in Detroit waited for Wednesday night’s game the way teenagers wait for the next “Nightmare on Elm Street” to open. They wanted revenge for the bloody night last season when Lemieux cheap-shotted Kris Draper into the boards, breaking his jaw. This has nothing to do with hockey and everything to do with power and swagger and feeling like nobody kicks us around, man, don’t mess with us, man, we’ll kick your butt, man.
You’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed. All night long I kept seeing zoom-ins on the big screen of children watching these fights in the stands, waving and laughing. And living in a city where, in the past two weeks, we’ve buried a half-dozen kids to senseless, tough-guy violence, I don’t get my jollies anymore at bloodshed. I’ve lost the ability to be proud of watching someone else fight and claiming it as some sort of victory for me.
But if this is what the NHL folks want, they got it. It has always been where hockey falls off the mountain of big-time pro sports and lands in some local rink in Saskatchewan. You do what McCarty did in the NBA, the NFL or major league baseball, and you’re suspended immediately.
In hockey? McCarty was back fighting by the second period. So was everyone else. By the time the game was done, there were 39 penalties, and far too many fights to list, let alone remember. At one point, Aaron Ward and Brent Severyn got so involved, Severyn was stripped down to his waist, bare-chested, looking like some 1890s prizefighter.
Oh, yes. The Wings won in overtime.
It took me all these paragraphs to get to that.
The best revenge
But it shouldn’t. Because here was the great part of Wednesday night, when the game tilted back to sanity, when the punching stopped and the blood dried, it returned to being about skating and passing and honest checking and goaltending. And it was under the hot lights of those higher standards that the Wings battled back from a 5-3 deficit, tied the game on a Shanahan wraparound, and pounded, pursued and pushed the Avalanche to the limit.
And finally, with 39 seconds gone in overtime, McCarty came streaking down the left side, Shanahan saw him, pushed a perfect pass across ice, north of the crease and onto McCarty’s stick. He instinctively whacked it past Roy, the red light flashed, the crowd exploded and the Wings had their first victory over Colorado since Game 5 of last year’s playoffs, 6-5.
Now that’s the best revenge.
“It’s a great rivalry, isn’t it?” McCarty gushed in the locker room, surrounded by reporters. “Everybody’s involved now . . . man, that was fun hockey!”
McCarty had leaped into the arms of his teammates after the goal. And when he saw Draper, he gave him an extra long hug.
“Mac is such a team guy and he wanted to stick up for me,” Draper said. “I consider us best friends, and I was happy he did what he did for me.”
“So do you consider this Lemieux issue settled?” Draper was asked.
He paused. “Sure. I like closure. If that’s closure, then it’s perfect.”
The honest reader will admit that what McCarty did to Lemieux was just as bad as what Lemieux did to Draper. But sports have rarely been about honesty and have always been about partiality. So you see Draper and McCarty and maybe, even despite yourself, you smile.
“Man, that was fun hockey,” McCarty said again.
You can’t fault the emotion, even if you can argue with the methodology. In one night, McCarty fought with the devils and heard the angels sing.
You pick the part you like.