SUN Hockey Pool

It's about the team

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

There was a time Darren McCarty didn't think he'd make a very good hockey player.

He was about five years old and while he can't recall exactly what rubbed him the wrong way about the gear, McCarty sat out much of his first season.

"I guess I started late because I didn't start skating till I was like six. I remember I didn't like the garter belt or the equipment my first year, so my parents were like, 'fine, don't play.'

Like most kids in Canada, though, it didn't take long for McCarty to fall in love with the game.

"I got a little bit of a late start compared to all my friends," said the Calgary Flames winger. "but once I got the bug ...

"I just grew up loving to play. As I got older, I loved it. It's all I've wanted to do since I was eight years old."

McCarty was born in Burnaby, B.C., but grew up in Leamington, a town in southern Ontario not far from the American border and Detroit, where he would eventually realize his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

The game quickly wove itself into the fabric of McCarty's everyday life.

He played as much as he could during the season, sometimes suiting up for as many as five teams.

"I'd skate every chance I could 'cause obviously that wasn't my forte," said the 33-year-old. "But I just loved to be on the ice.

"We were fortunate because we lived like a mile from the rink and I was a rink rat. I'd go skate before school, I'd skate after school. I'd skate any time I could.

"I'd skate with five different teams just to get ice time because I loved to be out there and wanted to get better."

His early hockey days were all about individual improvement.

Later though, McCarty learned hockey isn't just a game.

It's a culture.

Sometimes, it becomes like an extended family.

Anyone who has ever played a team sport knows the feeling you get when you achieve something as a group.

That is even more magnified when you reach an elite level.

"You ask any guys what they miss when they retire," said McCarty, who played Jr. B hockey in Peterborough before getting a chance to join the OHL's Belleville Bulls.

"They don't really miss the game itself. They miss the guys and the camaraderie. Especially on a team like this one and the ones we had in Detroit.

"A lot has to be said of going to war with guys in tough situations. The camaraderie is a huge thing. How a team gets along is a huge part of their success. I've seen it first hand."

McCarty has learned more than just what it takes to succeed on the ice from his years spent in arenas.

He's also developed his character.

"Everything that I have and a lot of the values that I have is from being around the game and the people around the game," said McCarty.

"I think that's the big thing, too. You meet so many great people in this game. Not only people you played with but ... people around the rinks that you see every day and have sort of a bond with them.

"Hockey's been the mainstay of my life. I guess the backbone of it. Through all the trials and tribulations, it's always been the constant. When times get tough, it's what you lean on.

"A lot of times, it's like a safe haven to come to the rink. It's like the outside world can't get you no matter what's going on in your personal life or whatever.

"It's not just about the game. I'd say maybe like 40 percent of it's about the game on the ice.

"It's everything around it."

FAMILY GUY ... Darren McCarty has a new hockey family in Calgary, but still treasures his time with old pals in Detroit, such as Brendan Shanahan, inset. The Flames' energizer credits hockey, and the great people he's met while playing the game for a good part of his life, with shaping him as a man. McCarty says team chemistry is a huge key to its success on the ice.

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THE THREE STARS ...

Bumps and bruises come and go, but is there anything cooler than a hockey scar? Talk about a badge of courage. It's to Canadians what duelling scars were way back when insults were met with swordplay. Of course, no one wants to get cut, but if you do, it's way cool.

Table hockey allowed us to strut our stuff on a smaller scale. Sure, that game's still around, but today it's NHL 2006, in whatever platform, that lets us dipsy doodle and claim supreme domination. Plus, the rods don't bend or stick and we can't lose our top player to decapitation.

Allegiance is passed down from generation to generation like a treasured keepsake. Why do you like the Leafs? Because my dad used to watch them every Saturday night. Tradition has spawned generations of fans who cheer for two teams -- their dad's favourites, and their own.


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