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February 23, 2005

Catching fire off the ice

Don't call hockey's Darren McCarty a rock wannabe


Even a 40-foot recreational vehicle feels like cramped quarters when Darren McCarty's on-board. It's noon, and the six-foot, 220-lb. Detroit Red Wing wants to nap, so he grabs a comforter and the big fluffy pillow he "borrowed" from the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas and then collapses on whatever makeshift bed is closest. It doesn't matter that someone's already sleeping there. "He's not too good with the sharing," says drummer Eric Miller, making room on the kitchen table/fold-out mattress.


Six months into what would have been McCarty's 12th NHL season, the 32-year-old is on tour with his rock band, Grinder (named after the Wings' three-time Stanley Cup-winning Grind Line, the aggressive checking trio of McCarty, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper). Moonlighting as the lead singer of a punk/heavy rock outfit -- with influences including Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 -- is something McCarty's been doing for seven years. Each off-season the band would play a handful of shows in and around Detroit, and in 2002 they found two weeks to write and record a debut CD, Gotta Keep Movin, in the home studio of Motor City musician and hockey fan Kid Rock (the album is available in Canada this week).

But momentum is hard to come by when your front man is MIA for eight months of the year. Now, in this hockey-less winter, the band's gotten considerably tighter -- McCarty's voice is stronger, and he's developing a stage presence not unlike his rugged hockey style. Grinder is able to give new songs time to breathe, and the group has undertaken a real tour, with stops in Northern Michigan, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago. They hit Ontario in March.

After Grinder's raucous two-night stint in Vegas, Chicago pays the price. The band is scheduled to do a morning show and radio interviews the day of the concert. But instead of making its way to the local TV studio, the RV ends up parked at a hospital, after bassist Jim Anders suffers a severe asthma attack. McCarty, Miller and guitarists Bill Reedy and Chris Wujek while away the day, watching The Simpsons and This is Spinal Tap, sleeping, playing video games and Texas Hold 'Em -- waiting to hear if Anders will recover in time for the gig. This is the last stop of the U.S. leg of the tour. And while they're exhausted and worried about their buddy, there's an undercurrent of adrenaline. "Everywhere we go," says Miller, "the biggest thing people say to all of us is, 'I came to see Darren, I'm a huge Wings fan, but you guys have a great band. I'm totally going to come and see you again.' What more can you ask?"

Everyone on the bus has a stake in this being seen as more than McCarty's vanity project -- in people recognizing that these veteran musicians haven't given up their real bands to back a singing jock. Sure, they have a fancy tour bus for the first time in their careers (bought by McCarty) and are playing Hollywood sports awards parties -- in front of the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, no less -- but they're also proud of the music they're making, and of their friend. "It's so inspiring to me," says Miller. "You have a guy who's jumping into our world. I try to imagine reversing the roles; I wouldn't even want to try, let alone be any good at it."

While no one's about to call McCarty a poseur to his heavily scarred, dentally challenged face, he knows others are skeptical. "I learned early what I had to do to overcome all the naysayers," he says. "It's just like starting over again, using the same skills and the same mindset as I had trying to be a hockey player. Since I was 8, that's what I wanted to do, and I had more people tell me why I couldn't do it than why I could."

Born in Burnaby, B.C., and raised in Leamington, Ont., close to Detroit, McCarty was an average skater but a hard worker, willing to do anything to make it to the NHL. During his summers off from Junior A, when other teenage boys were lazing about, he was bulking up and working on his cardio, taking aerobic step classes -- not exactly a macho male activity. "I tell these guys I have the same passion toward music as I did back then with hockey," says McCarty. "I want it to be legit, I want to be good and I want us to be taken seriously."

A divorced father of four (an eight-year-old son and three younger daughters), he's one of Detroit's most loved personalities, a tough guy with a big heart. He started the McCarty Cancer Foundation in 1997 as a Father's Day gift to his dad, Craig, who later died of multiple myeloma. These days, when he's not out with the band, you'll often find McCarty at an arena, watching and helping his son's team. "Griffin's at the age where he knows as much about the game as I do -- he eats, breathes and sleeps it," says McCarty. "To go out and give him tips and watch him do it and succeed, that's fulfilling. He was playing in a tournament and I said, 'Man, when you go to the net you've got to get your stick on the ice and you've got to stop and be ready for whatever's next.' Boom, he goes to the net, stops, the puck comes to him, he bangs it in, scores."

Things aren't as sweet when McCarty senior's on the ice. Opponents who mess with a Red Wing know they'll be answering to this scrapper. He can also be counted on for a few playoff points, including the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1997. But now, with a contract that expires in three years, he's starting to see this rock band thing as a retirement plan. Even sitting in a hospital parking lot, he doesn't buy that music, like hockey, might be a young man's racket. "Our influences are a lot older," he says. "We look at the Stones and they can still play. Look at Paul McCartney doing the Super Bowl show."

Going on nine hours at the hospital, the musicians on the bus are extraordinarily patient -- after all, they've spent the past six months waiting on an NHL decision. And when the Chicago show is cancelled, it's nothing compared to the thought of McCarty being called back to the ice. The other guys in Grinder don't want to share their front man this winter. And now that the NHL season's toast, they won't have to.

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