Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.
Today, Sean Leahy remembers Darren McCarty’s highlight-reel goal in Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.
Gary Thorne’s voice was clueing us all in that we were in the middle of witnessing something special.
“McCarty draws … McCarty in … McCarty SCORRRRRESSSS! … A magnificent goal … Darren McCarty!”
It was a Detroit Red Wings goal you would expect to see out of someone like Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov. But Darren McCarty? He could score you a goal, sure, but his hands were typically reserved for pummeling the faces of opponents, not dangling rookie defensemen.
The rookie defensmen in question? Janne Niinimaa of the Philadelphia Flyers — the poor soul who is forever on the wrong side of McCarty’s highlight-reel goal during Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.
McCarty act of magic put the Red Wings up 2-0 late in the second period, giving them a cushion in what would be the final game of the series. It ended up as the knockout punch as the Detroit would complete a sweep and win its eighth Cup in franchise history and first since 1955.
I watched that goal completely in awe of what McCarty had pulled off. It’s was unexpected and unforgettable. This Red Wings team had Yzerman and Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan and Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Great, smart hockey players with endless skill. McCarty, a future member of the famed “Grind Line,” had his role. But like previous tough guys the franchise had employed — Bob Probert, Joe Kocur — he could put the puck in the back of the net as well as he could use his fists.
That’s why it’s my favorite hockey goal. An unlikely source delivers an unbelievable memory on the biggest stage.
This is the first edition of “My Favorite Goal,” a season-long series where NBC Sports writers and NHL players tell the stories of the goals that mean the most to them. They’re not necessarily the best goals ever seen, but ones that have left a lasting impression.
Today, we start with McCarty and the story behind the move that still resonates 22 years later.
So how did a 25-year-old bottom-six forward pull off that move? You have to travel to Sweden to find the origins of it becoming part of McCarty’s hockey legacy.
The Red Wings saw their playoff runs in 1995 and 1996 end in bitter fashion. They were swept in the 1995 Cup Final by the New Jersey Devils and lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final a year later in an emotional series that featured the infamous Claude Lemieux hit on Kris Draper, which started a rivalry.
McCarty wanted to improve his game in the summer of 1996, so he flew to Sweden to train with stick-handling coach Thomas Storm. His teachings have had an effect on highly-skilled players over the year, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk among his many pupils. How would it work with a player like McCarty?
“That goal, even though I beat one guy one-on-one in my whole career, that didn’t start that year or in practice or come out of nowhere,” McCarty told NBC Sports. “Because it’s what are you willing to do to get better?”
When McCarty hit the ice with Storm, he wasn’t taking part in training sessions with other professional players. Instead, here was a veteran NHLer working on stick-handling with 11- and 12-year-olds — one of whom was a future teammate of McCarty’s in Kristian Huselius, who was dubbed “Magic” back then by the Red Wings forward.
Each day the players would warm up by doing a 10-minute stick-handling drill with the goal to get their brains and hands working in alignment.
Toe drag, into your feet, pull out. Toe drag, into your feet, pull out. Toe drag, into your feet, pull out.
Over and over again the players would practice it until the movement became second nature. Storm’s goal was repetition, for the motion to become muscle memory. He taught his students to stick-handle north-south, not laterally.
Little did McCarty know this simple exercise would be the reason we’re still talking about a goal from a Cup Final 22 years later.
McCarty’s best offensive year came the following season after working with Storm. He hit career highs in goals (19) and points (49). And nearly three months before he scored the goal, he was a key player in kicking off in what’s known as “Fight Night at the Joe” when Detroit and Colorado brawled in late March. Later that game he would net the overtime winner to end an emotional night.
The Red Wings soared through the Western Conference during the 1997 playoffs and put themselves on the verge of sweeping the Flyers heading into Game 4 of the Cup Final.
Up 1-0 late in the second period of what would be the final game… well, let’s allow McCarty to walk us through it.
“[Vladimir] Konstantinov takes a hit in the corner, gets mucked around. [Tomas] Sandstrom hits me [with the puck] being a responsible ‘Grind Line’ right-winger through the middle.
“We were at the end of the shift. My idea was to get it to the red line and dump it in. Tried to dump it in, fanned on it. All of a sudden muscle memory comes into play and I remember going, ‘Oh my God, I got [Niinimaa] beat’ and I saw just a flash of orange because [Ron] Hextall was coming out at me and I was able to pull it around him.
“I was more nervous about missing the net from that close than I ever was on a three-foot putt or anything like that.”
McCarty’s overwhelming thought as he was in the middle of pulling off the move was “don’t lose the puck.” It could have happened during the toe drag or as he shifted from his backhand to forehead while finding space between Niinimaa’s stick and Hextall, who was playing it as you’d expect — aggressively.
The goal was stunning, but also a meaningful one for the Red Wings, who were all in disbelief.
“What the f—- was that?,” McCarty recalls Yzerman, his boyhood hero, asking him during the celebration. “I don’t know, but who gives a f—-!,” he replied laughing.
“It’s almost like in football: if you don’t know if it’s a catch you better hurry up and get the play off before they take it back because you’re not supposed to do that,” McCarty joked.
McCarty loves to say that the first person on his Christmas card list every year is Eric Lindros. The Flyers’ captain’s goal with 15 seconds left in the third period cut the Red Wings’ lead to 2-1. That ended up as the final score and McCarty can forever say he scored a Stanley Cup game-winning goal.
The move, which doesn’t have a name, wasn’t tried much, if at all, during the rest of McCarty’s career. He was the type of player in the type of role that didn’t afford many one-on-one opportunities like he had against Niinimaa. He would try it in practice, but when you attempt it against a Hall of Famer like Nicklas Lidstrom every day, you’re going to fail just about every time.
But for one night, and one moment, all McCarty needed was one chance, and he capitalized.
“If you’re going to use that moment then you might as well make it a good one.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.