After sustaining multiple unshielded blows to the head and fearing more, the body reflexively takes cover. One gets as low as they can and their arms come up around their head, protecting their brain—the same brain their opponent is enthusiastically trying to injure. Among a tornado of limbs and fists, balancing on razor-thin blades, this third option exists—not fight or flight.
They call it “turtling.” It happens in a hockey fight when one of the combatants—consciously or not—gives up. The referees recognize the signal, nod to each other, and end the fight.
Of the four major American sports, only in hockey do the perceived slights, un-penalized violations, and soap-opera rivalries regularly result in actual punches being thrown—and landed. With all due respect to Nolan Ryan, Ron Artest, and Ndamukong Suh, only hockey players put their helmets on knowing there’s a decent chance an opponent might ask them to take the helmet off in order for them to connect knuckle to head. And if you’re an enforcer, a hockey team’s designated fighting tough-guy, the odds move from decent to good.
Darren McCarty, Detroit Red Wings enforcer of the ‘90s and ‘00s, stopped by the Student Center on Wednesday, Oct. 21 for a one-hour signing session with Eastern Michigan University students. McCarty was helping promote TRUEMU night at Joe Louis Arena on Nov. 3. Before the signing, he talked about his time as an NHL enforcer.
“That was the heyday,” he said about his time with the Red Wings.
As a hockey fight begins, fans stand and cheer—something normally reserved for goals. As many enforcer jerseys are in the stands as the team’s captain, and during a boring game the fighting sideshow becomes the main event.
It’s all part of the bond between enforcer and fan-base. This biceps-strong bond adds new fibers every time the enforcer puts his dental work in the line of fire to the roaring approval of the crowd. It’s a bond McCarty knows well.
“I’ve had the highest of highs and lowest of lows, but they’ve always been there and always been loyal. It’s easy to be loved when things are going good, but when things are going bad and they still have that love there—that’s what pulls you through. I can’t thank everybody enough for all the love they’ve given me over the years.”
An enforcer is also bonded to his teammates. Frozen pond pugilists are often on rosters to prevent harassment of a star-player. It’s a literal “mess with him and I break your nose” vigilantism that brings enforcers incredibly close to their teammates. As revealed in former Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert’s autobiography, when long-time captain Steve Yzerman’s number was being hung from the Joe Louis Arena rafters, Yzerman’s main concern was whether or not Probert would make the ceremony. When Probert died three years later, Yzerman delivered the eulogy.
Probert was older than McCarty, but their Red Wings careers overlapped by a year.
“The best part of playing with 'Probie' is that I could take care of the lightweight,” McCarty said with a grin.
Rivalries in hockey are often marked by fisticuffs, and in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s there was no more fierce a rivalry in sports than the one between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche. The teams had remarkably analogous players: steady, quiet captains in Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic; flashy, skilled, European goal-scorers in Sergei Fedorov and Peter Forsberg; smooth-skating, reliable defensemen in Nicklas Lidstrom and Adam Foote; and of course a pair of bruising enforcers in Darren McCarty and Claude Lemieux.
A year after Lemieux had shoved Red Wing Kris Draper into the boards head-first, the two teams met at Joe Louis Arena. A multi-player brawl broke out, including goalies, and McCarty found Lemieux in the melee. One right hook later and Lemieux was on the ice. He tried to stagger back to his feet, but McCarty was raining down hay-makers to his face. Lemieux’s knees hit the ice again, and his arms went up around his head. He had turtled, “probably to save his life,” described the TV announcer. Lemieux’s night was over but not McCarty’s. He went on to record another fight and score the game-winner in overtime. That season the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
McCarty would score other memorable goals and get in other memorable fights, but that night in 1997 was probably the apex of his career. The road since then has not always been smooth. McCarty’s list of personal problems is long, diverse, and public. Bankruptcies, divorces, gambling debts, and alcoholism have taken turns delivering blows to the self-described adrenaline junkie. McCarty is far from the only enforcer with those types of issues.
“[Enforcers have rocky lives because of] concussions and being improperly medicated. It’s a tough thing to have to go to bed at night and have to worry about not only playing but who you have to fight the next day. What’s most important is that after you retire you have a good community, you have good people around you, and you can’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes it’s just about being medicated properly, just like anybody else in the world, because what you do is not who you are," McCarty said. "We’ve gone through a lot of different things and we’ve probably suffered more concussions than the regular person and that might play into it, but if you ask for help and you have the right people around you, you can get through it. I know that through personal experience."
McCarty is 43 and the years are starting to show. His voice is gravely, something that probably played to his favor when he fronted a rock band called Grinder. Absent skates, he’s a couple inches shorter than he looked on the ice. His hair was shaved into some sort of a Mohawk but is visibly thinning. It’s been six years since he was in playing shape.
But McCarty isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Penalties are called more often, reducing the need for an enforcer to dole-out justice. Only a few designated fighters remain on NHL rosters.
“The game’s changed. It’s not my game. I wouldn’t be able to play in this day and age because they eliminated the type of player I was. There are a couple left. Evolution happens in every sport, but it’s not my game, so I’m glad I’m not playing. That’s the game I grew up on, so that’s the only game I know.”
Students waiting in line to get an autograph spent time with the 1997 version of Darren McCarty, watching YouTube videos of his fights.
“Baddest guy I’ve ever seen fight, man. Especially when he fought Claude Lemieux. I still watch it on Facebook. It was awesome. I was ten, 11 years-old watching it with my dad. I used to watch it with him every night. I love him.” said senior Justin Bashi.
You can hardly throw a rock in Metro Detroit without hitting someone that has a positive personal story about Darren McCarty.
“I met him maybe ten years ago at a Dairy Queen with his girlfriend. I was with my family. He was really cool, and he signed his autograph on a napkin. I still have the napkin, too,” said senior Scott Mattler. “Darren McCarty was the ultimate scrapper. He got the Joe on their feet every time he dropped the gloves, one of my favorite players growing up.”
McCarty had a positive impression of EMU.
“I never went to college, so I think it’s sweet. The Student Center is phenomenal. I have to take a class here to get the experience—have a dorm room. I think it’s awesome.”
EMU students can get discounted Red Wings tickets for the Tuesday, Nov. 3 game at 7:30 by logging onto redwings.nhl.com/TRUEMU and using the promo code TRUEMU. EMU students will get a free T-shirt at the game. There will also be a pregame party at Harry’s Detroit with an appearance by McCarty. To reserve a seat on the shuttle bus from EMU, contact Breanna Wooster at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for this year’s edition of the Red Wings, McCarty was optimistic.
“They’re young. They got off to a great start. They’ve got to cut down on the goals against, but I love both goalies. You’ve got one and one-A. I love the fact that Jeff Blashill is such a great coach and he used to be a goalie so he can help [current goalies] Jimmy and Mrazek with that goalie mentality. I have no worries. They’re fast as hell, and they’ll figure it out. I’m really excited about this season, and I predict they’re going to win a cup within the next three years, and it’ll probably be the year the new stadium opens.”
McCarty’s NHL days are behind him, but he has confirmed he will lace up for the Detroit Red Wings alumni team when they face off against the Colorado Avalanche alumni in February. Also confirmed for the game: Claude Lemieux. McCarty had a quick response when asked what would happen if Lemieux dropped his gloves during the alumni game.
“Seriously? Is that the stupidest question I’ve ever heard? If he drops his gloves, what am I gonna do? Turtle?” he replied sarcastically.