Darren McCarty

ESPN

My Favorite Goal: McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Darren McCarty just wants to be left alone

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Former Red Wings grind line stud Darren McCarty is doing a lot to clean up his life. Some of his friends aren’t taking his new lifestyle so well, apparently.

According to The Detroit News, McCarty and his wife took out an order of protection against four of their friends because he’s trying to straighten up his life and get away from his old partying ways.

“All we want is to be left alone,” McCarty said in an interview. “I ignored some of the things they were doing and was willing to let it go, until they started threatening my wife and me. Death threats.

“They don’t like me because I’m not running around with them anymore, and they don’t like her because we got married and just want to get on with our lives.”

On top of the death threats and other ugly behavior, the McCartys allege the four former friends are stalking them both on the Internet and real life. The price of fame can be rough when things turn ugly like this.

PHT’s Morning Skate: Smokin’ Joe Frazier the Flyers fan

PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Joe Frazier wasn’t a hockey legend, but he was a Philadelphia legend who had a special place in the Flyers’ hearts as well, especially when Ray Emery was in town. Rest in peace, Champ. (NBC Sports)

Want to melt your brain on win statistics so far this season? Pension Plan Puppets has your hookup. Do not read before caffeinated. (PPP)

Claude Noel does not want to move Dustin Byfuglien back to forward. Say, I don’t suppose Buff misses Craig Ramsay now does he? (Winnipeg Sun)

Curious what the Canadiens would look like all mustachioed for Movember? No, they all won’t look like the Mario Bros. before eating a mushroom. (All-Habs)

Mike Komisarek is giving Luke Schenn tips on how to bounce back from a benching. At least he’s experienced at it. (Toronto Sun)

Loui Eriksson is getting work done for the Stars so far this season. (ESPN Dallas)

Duncan Keith is feeling like he’ll be back in the lineup Tuesday. Chicago has missed him. (Chicago Tribune)

While Tim Connolly is banged up for the Leafs, Joe Colborne is making his mark in Toronto’s farm system. “Thank you, Kaberle” has an awkward ring to it. (NHL)

Jets would like more from Bryan Little. That might be a tall task. (Winnipeg Sun)

The Capitals are mailing it in on fighting this year. Add them to the list with Tampa Bay and Detroit. We bet D.J. King would’ve liked a heads up on this development. (CSNWashington.com)

Daniel Alfredsson had himself an Ice Cube day coming back from his concussion. For you fans that don’t know 90s rap, he had a good day. (Senators Extra)

Adrian Dater ran into former Wings forward Darren McCarty at the pawn shop where “Hardcore Pawn” is filmed. Make your own punchline if you want to. Tread carefully. (All Things Avs)

Finally, Al Montoya may have taken a bit of a beating last night, but he will do his job lying down. Seriously.

Kris Draper announces retirement from NHL after 20 seasons

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When Kris Draper’s NHL career started with the Winnipeg Jets (the original ones) back in 1990 as a speedy forward with no real niche at all to crack the Jets lineup, he likely found it hard to imagine that after his struggles to earn playing time he’d be calling it quits 21 years later. After starting off inauspiciously in Winnipeg and ending as a four-time Stanley Cup champion in Detroit, that’s just what Draper is doing as he announced his retirement from the NHL.

For Kris Draper, that kind of story is the perfect way to sum up what’s been the ideal career for checking line player. He didn’t score many goals, just 161 over his career, but he helped prevent them and he won faceoffs with the best in the NHL while playing with the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings obtained Draper from the Jets in one of the oddest deals in NHL history in June of 1993. Draper was traded to Detroit from Winnipeg because the Jets didn’t have a place for him in their lineup and all the Wings had to do was give the Jets a $1.

Draper took that opportunity with the Wings and turned it into a brilliant career as one of the best checking centers in the league. Playing alongside the likes of Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty in the latter half of the 1990s they formed “The Grind Line” as Detroit’s top shutdown line. With an equal mix of grit, speed, and tenacity “The Grind Line” helped lead the Wings to Stanley Cup victories in 1997, 1998, and 2002. With the 90s teams being dominated by equal amounts of North American and Russian superstar talent, “The Grind Line” provided a change-up from what the likes of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, and Igor Larionov were all capable of doing.

Of course, Draper nearly saw his career put on hold in 1996 after receiving one of the dirtiest hits from behind from Colorado’s Claude Lemieux in the 1996 Western Conference finals that saw Draper’s face horrifically injured. Draper suffered a broken jaw, broken cheekbone, and had numerous stitches to his face following the hit and the moment instigated the Detroit-Colorado rivalry that burned white hot through the late 90s and early 2000s.

Draper’s presence in Detroit was a constant over 17 seasons with the Wings and his ability to be productive consistently over his career is what helped his longevity. Draper enjoyed his best statistical seasons from 2001-2007 hitting his stride at its best in his 30s as he scored double-digit goals for five straight seasons. For a guy on the third and fourth line, potting that many goals is a hell of an accomplishment; Even more so considering it wasn’t his job to pitch in that much offensively.

While Draper’s departure in Detroit is a sad one for Wings fans, they have the heir apparent to Draper already in their lineup in Darren Helm. Draper was always known for his tremendous speed and ability to sustain pressure on the forecheck. Helm is one of the league’s fastest skaters and his arrival in Detroit effectively chased Draper out of a job in recent seasons.

For Detroit, it’s the third retirement they’ve seen this summer as Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood each hung it up earlier this offseason. The effect of having three guys in their late 30s retiring helps bring the average age of the team down a bit, but losing that expertise and guiding veteran hands might prove to be difficult in the locker room. Draper’s leadership in particular leaves a bit of a void for the Wings, but with the number of other great veteran players they have their it shouldn’t affect things greatly.

While Draper isn’t someone who’s going to generate talk of joining the Hall of Fame, he’s leaving the game as a hero in Detroit and to Red Wings fans all over and as a guy hated in Colorado and Pittsburgh. You’ve done something right during your time in the league if you can leave the game beloved by the home fans and hated by rivals, and that’s just how Draper wants it.