WASHINGTON — Before the games, he wanders around the tunnels at Joe Louis Arena. And after the games, he hangs out next to his son’s locker, sitting on a stool, waiting for his boy to emerge from the shower. He is silver-haired, with glasses and a peaceful, smiling face. I’ve seen him more than ever these last few weeks. Craig McCarty is doing what any father would love to do. He is sharing in his child’s life.
But there’s an urgency when he and his son Darren get together. Craig is fighting cancer. Multiple myeloma. In between the wonderful hockey highlights, he endures those awful cancer moments that too many of us now know, the treatments, the side effects, the weakened condition — and worst of all, that haunting whisper in the back of your brain. If sand-in-an-hourglass had a voice, it would be that whisper.
“With a disease like my father’s, you never know the time line,” said Darren, sitting after practice Monday for what could be the Stanley Cup-clinching game tonight. “That’s why last year, I wanted to win so badly for him.
“And that’s what’s pushing me now. It’s great that he’s at the arena. It’s great that he’s become a fixture there, because it means he’s doing better and he can handle it. But I want him to see us win again, because who knows when we’ll get another opportunity?”
He stopped for a second, and lowered his voice. “Who knows how much longer he’ll be around?”
People ask how the Red Wings manage to magically steer through the minefields of this postseason, how they always seem to win by one measly goal, how they manage to get big plays from unlikely players, how they’ve reached the edge of the rainbow when so many others have fallen off.
The answer is more than size, strength or coaching. The answer is something extraordinary, an extra oomph that has brought them to the lip of glory. It begins with the desire to win.
But it ends with the desire to share.
Vladdie and Sergei
Ask Kris Draper what his dream moment would be if the Wings captured the title against Washington tonight. This is what he says:
“I think what this whole team wants to do is give Vladdie (Konstantinov) and Sergei (Mnatsakanov) a chance to hold the Cup again. Those guys deserve it. We’re playing for them.
“To see those two holding the Stanley Cup, in their wheelchairs, seeing the smiles on their faces, that would make it all so worthwhile — all the injuries, the sacrifice, the miles we’ve put on the exercise bikes this year. That would certainly be the most gratifying moment I’ve ever had as a hockey player.”
Here’s a simple truth about human nature: When you are fighting for yourself, you fight hard. When you are fighting for someone you love, you fight harder. Think of the adrenaline that surges in your veins when your child is in danger; it’s more than you feel when the danger is for you, right? Think of how easily you, personally, can shrug off an insult, but how hard it is to shrug off one about your mother, father or spouse.
That’s because the best part of mankind is that we are inclined, by love, to pump an extra heartbeat for those who matter.
So this Red Wings team has become something different from any sports group I’ve ever covered. So much of its effort is dedicated to someone else. The Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov factor spreads from Draper to every player in that locker room, including 40-year-old Slava Fetisov, who survived the same crash that ended his friends’ careers.
It extends to the training staff, the coaches, the team doctors, even to the implacable Scotty Bowman, who, on Saturday, before Game 3, asked the team to take a few quiet seconds to think about Vladdie and Sergei on the anniversary of their crash. “Remember how lucky we all are,” Bowman said. There was cracking emotion in his voice.
Little wonder the Wings outshot the Caps in the first period, 13-1.
The ones you love
But it’s not just Vladdie and Sergei. It’s McCarty, wanting his ailing father to soak every precious minute out of the wonderful ride. It’s Steve Yzerman, playing out a legacy for his newly born daughter, Maria. It’s guys like Doug Brown, who said, when asked about the best part of winning a Cup:
“It’s the happiness that it brings to my parents, my wife and my children. That’s priceless. To see your family get tears in their eyes over what you’ve done, it’s …as heartwarming as it comes.”
“Is that one of the things you remember most about last year?” I asked.
“That is what I remember most,” he said.
Now, I’m not saying that Washington, Dallas, St. Louis or Phoenix didn’t have players who wanted to share a Stanley Cup with loved ones. I’m simply saying that, for whatever reason, this current Red Wings squad has a little something extra. It seems almost devoid of personal ego and features an overwhelming majority of players whose greatest thrill comes with passing the Stanley Cup to someone else and watching the change in that person’s face.
You want the secret to the Wings’ invisible edge? That’s it right there. In the silver-haired daddies who’ll be watching tonight, in the children who will squeal, in the two men in wheelchairs who may shed a tear.
“Hey, the Stanley Cup is good,” Darren McCarty said, “but what fun is it if you can’t share it with someone else?”
It’s in that powerful spirit that the Red Wings take the ice tonight.
I wouldn’t bet against them.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.
Mitch will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” for Father’s Day, 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Maple and Telegraph, and 5-6 p.m. Saturday, Barnes & Noble, Northville.