Jimmy Carson pulled his car to the curb at the corner of Grand River and McGraw and surveyed the desolation. Across the street the entire block was overgrown with grass and weeds and strewn with bricks and chunks of concrete. To the right of the car was an old parking lot, its blacktop crumbling and spattered with broken glass, its out-of-date business permits still posted on the light poles. To the rear stood a decrepit establishment called Al's Olympia Lounge.
"Imagine," Carson said, painting a picture with his voice, "if we could put ourselves back in the '20s or '30s or '40s. This used to be the heart of Detroit, one of the busiest intersections in the city. Right there [pointing to the weed-covered lot] was where Olympia Stadium used to be. Did you ever see the Olympia? It was like Chicago Stadium. The seats seemed to hang right over the ice. And loud? What an arena to see a hockey game.
"That place behind us, Al's Olympia Lounge? That was my grandpa's restaurant, the New Olympia Barbeque. He sold it in 1949. All the players went there for lunch. This corner here was my grandpa's car wash. My dad turned it into a parking lot. The Norris family, which owned the Wings, owned the parking lot next to it. And on the other side of the Norris lot was another lot of my dad's. And he owned a third one behind that. You couldn't have had a better location. I'd run across to the Olympia while he was taking care of business and wait in one of the stadium manager's offices and read the game program. The stadium manager was also Greek. A lot of Greeks worked at the Olympia. They all knew my grandpa and my dad, so they all knew me."
Carson's heritage is 100% Greek. His paternal grandfather, who was born in Greece, changed his name from Kyriazopoulos to Carson. His mother, whose maiden name was Maria Maragaki, grew up in Rhodes. Carson is fluent in Greek. He speaks it at his parents' house with his mother's mother, Kalliope, whom he calls Yia Yia. She is 85 years old, about 4'6" and boasts the distinction of having been Carson's first goaltender, when he was four years old. He even insisted that she wear pads.
Carson pulled his car away from the curb. "Now it looks like the Vietnam War just ended here," he said. "My dad won't drive by. He's never been back since they tore the Olympia down. He'd cry."
Carson was home again, and it was almost the way he had pictured it as a boy. Playing for the Red Wings. Living in affluent Grosse Pointe, three miles from the house he grew up in. True, the Olympia was gone now—the Wings have been playing in Joe Louis Arena since 1979—but things were pretty close.
Carson, a ripe old 22—the only teenager other than Wayne Gretzky to have scored 50 goals in a season, the man who was traded for the Great One in the most sensational deal in NHL history, the man who walked out on the Edmonton Oilers—was back in Detroit. He was playing for the team that had fed the fantasies of his youth, in a town where he seemed to know half the people on a first-name basis and to be related to the other half.
Greeks have been wandering off and returning to their cities and villages ever since Odysseus. Greeks must go home again, even if they have to tie themselves to the mast and sail past a chorus of Sirens to do it. That, in mythological terms, is just about what Carson had to do to get traded home from Edmonton.
But before we get into that part of the story, you should know more about Carson's boyhood, because if ever a kid was born to play for the Red Wings, Carson was that kid. He knew it by the time he was in the third grade. He wrote about becoming a Red Wing for one of those what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up assignments in school. He wanted to be a Red Wing and park in his father's lot and wear number 10, like Guy Lafleur, the Montreal Canadiens star who was his favorite player at the time. For some reason he has saved that composition all these years.
He has saved a lot of Red Wing stuff from his youth, too. Like the first stick he ever played with, the one Marcel Dionne gave him when he was five. The same Marcel Dionne whose wife, Carol, used to let Jimmy sit on her lap during Red Wing games. Later, Dionne would be his teammate on the Los Angeles Kings. Jimmy cried when the blade on that stick broke in the middle of a game. He retrieved the blade and taped it back to the shaft, but, of course, the stick was never the same. Still, he saved it, broken blade and all. It's in his basement along with pucks signed by Mickey Redmond and Danny Grant and Dan Maloney, Red Wing standouts of the not-so-great teams of the 1970s. So is the hockey goal he used to shoot on for hours while listening to Detroit games on the radio.
By the time Carson was 11 he was good enough to play for a team sponsored by Compuware, a Detroit-based software company, whose alumni include such NHL players as Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, Pat LaFontaine, Craig Wolanin and Mike Modano—not to mention the highly touted Eric Lindros, who will almost certainly be the first player taken in next spring's NHL draft. Carson began traveling to tournaments all over North America, playing 60 to 70 games a year, wearing the best equipment, getting the best ice time. He wasn't just another player. Carson was a star through peewees, bantams and midgets.
When he was 16, Carson chose to play Junior A hockey in Verdun, a Montreal suburb. There wouldn't be a lot of travel because all the teams were in Quebec, so he could continue his education, and he liked the idea of learning French and living in a foreign culture. He also liked the idea that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was known as a scorer's league. Like Lafleur, Carson was a scorer: soft hands, quick, accurate shot. In his second season in Verdun, Carson was an all-star center, getting 70 goals and 83 assists in only 69 games. He would be one of the top players taken in the 1986 NHL draft.
As chance would have it, Detroit had the first pick that year. However, much to Carson's disappointment, the Red Wings selected Joe Murphy instead. "Looking back, it was the best thing that happened to me," says Carson, "having a chance to establish myself without the pressure of playing before the home folks."
Nonetheless, the Red Wings were his team. The month that he was drafted by the Kings with the second pick, his beloved Olympia Stadium fell to the wrecking ball. Before it was leveled, Carson and some friends sneaked into the abandoned Red Wing offices, and he grabbed a bunch of papers that had been left lying on the floor: old programs, press releases and calendars. A list of the original investors in Olympia Stadium, for heaven's sake, dated 1927. A blueprint of the building. All that history just lying there. Carson saved everything. He later would save a brick given to him that was taken from the site after the Olympia had been reduced to rubble, a brick that was, symbolically, the foundation of his childhood dreams. To this day he keeps it in his study.
Carson was 18 years and two months old, the youngest player in the league, when he joined the Kings for the 1986-87 season. He had already lived away from home for two years, so that was nothing new. He didn't drink alcohol. Marcel and Carol Dionne were there to keep an eye on him. Imbued in his bones he had a firm set of Greek Orthodox values that set him apart from the ordinary rookie. And the Smythe Division's freewheeling style suited his hockey skills perfectly. He immediately thrived, finishing with 37 goals his first year. In '87-88, Carson turned in a 55-goal, 107-point performance to become the first U.S.-born player to surpass 50 goals and 50 assists in the same season. He was just 19, and only Gretzky had more goals in a season as a teenager.
The Kings were up-and-coming. Bruce McNall bought them in March 1988, and he immediately befriended Carson. After the season, McNall promised Carson he would renegotiate his contract, which still had a year, plus an option year, to run. He told him to buy a house and to furnish it. He talked about purchasing a team plane to ease L.A.'s grueling travel regimen. Carson didn't think he would ever play for another team.
Then in July he got a call from McNall. "Jimmy, we've got to talk," McNall said, sounding shaken.
Carson went right over to McNall's office. That's when he heard about the pending deal involving Gretzky. "The Oilers are insisting on you," McNall said. He assured Carson that he was still exploring every other option.
Three weeks later, however, the details of the trade were announced: Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings for Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft choices and $15 million. The trade rocked the sports world.
It has been looked at from Gretzky's perspective a million times, but here is what it looked like from Carson's: "The first thing I hear is there have been death threats on [Oiler owner Peter] Pocklington, and they're hanging him in the streets in effigy. Just a barrage of negativism. Meanwhile, in L.A., where I've just bought a house, the first home I've ever owned, it's like a big party. The town was going berserk. And guess who's leaving? I was totally numb at the press conference when I was introduced to Edmonton."
True, the Oilers were defending Stanley Cup champions, but Edmonton? After growing up in Grosse Pointe Woods, spending two years in Montreal, followed by two more in Los Angeles, Carson certainly wasn't going to find the West Edmonton Mall—the city's chief attraction now that Gretzky was gone—enough to keep his engine charged all winter.
He was different from most hockey players—well rounded, cosmopolitan, inquisitive about the world. His favorite people to hang around with were not just athletes but young accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers. Most of his childhood friends had gone into business. On the mantel in his Grosse Pointe home, Carson keeps photographs of himself talking to Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. He likes to read books on politics. Many of his Red Wing teammates call him Mr. Republican because of his conservative political leanings.
"It was reverse culture shock," he says of his exposure to Edmonton. "Most of the Oiler players come from small farming towns. They think Edmonton is Paris. Their idea of fun is going to a bar and getting hammered all night. That's not me. How do you give up your values, just to be accepted by the team?"
Carson was miserable. And he certainly wasn't going to make Edmonton fans forget Gretzky. Still, teamed with the Great One's old linemates, Jari Kurd and Esa Tikkanen, Carson did get 100 points (49 goals and 51 assists) for the second straight season.
So he had decided to play out his option. There was no getting around the fact that he didn't like living in Edmonton. It wasn't the money. Carson refused the Oilers' offer to renegotiate his contract because doing so meant signing a long-term deal. He simply wanted to work in a city in which he enjoyed living. Says Carson, "After the All-Star break I called Sather and told him, 'I don't think things are going to work here, and if you get a good offer, it might be best if you moved me.' "
Sather didn't make a deal, and Carson's first season in Edmonton ended on a sour note when the Oilers were bounced from the opening round of the playoffs by the Gretzky-led Kings. Carson returned to California to await a trade, but nothing happened. He reported to training camp, but still no deal was in the works. "The Oilers obviously weren't getting the hint," he says. "I kept asking myself, What do you do? What are your options?"
Near the end of camp, Carson's ice-time started to slip. He wasn't being used as often on the power play. He was being paired with wingers less skilled than Kurri and Tikkanen. Now Carson had a fresh concern. What if he got buried on the third or fourth line and had a poor season? What would that do to his status as a free agent? And what if he did play out his option?
According to the NHL's restrictive free-agent rules, the Oilers could keep him by matching any offer another club made to him. Recalls Carson: "I kept asking myself, What do you do? Keep playing? I decided that I had a few marbles in my hand, and, like in any business, I could either use those marbles or lose them." Four games into the 1989-90 season, Carson quit the Oilers.
Naturally, he was vilified in the Edmonton press, described as a spoiled, rich American crybaby who had walked out on his teammates. He was called a quitter. YANKEE GO HOME said one newspaper. The fact that for the previous eight months Carson had quietly urged Sather to trade him to a team based in a U.S. city—it didn't have to be Detroit—was largely ignored, because Carson had never taken his case to the press.
Sather needed just three weeks, until Nov. 2, to swing a deal that he would later say, somewhat hyperbolically, won Edmonton the 1990 Stanley Cup. Carson, Kevin McClelland and a fifth-round draft pick went to the Red Wings for Petr Klima, Adam Graves, Jeff Sharpies and Murphy, the man Detroit had selected ahead of Carson in the draft. Carson was home again.
On the whole, though, Carson would just as soon forget last season. It was epitomized by the penalty shot he was awarded in his first game in a Detroit uniform. "What are you doing?" Carson hollered at referee Lance Roberts as Roberts made the call. "You can't call a penalty shot! I don't have enough pressure on me?"
Mike Liut, the Hartford Whaler goalie at the time, stuffed Carson's attempt, and the Red Wings lost 4-3. They ended up with the third-worst record in the league (28-38-14) and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years. Carson struggled, sitting out 21 games with a torn ligament in his right knee and finishing the season with mononucleosis. All told, he missed 32 games and scored only 21 goals, after having averaged 47 in his first three seasons.
During the summer, Carson worked out extensively for the first time, and the early returns show that his efforts have paid off. First-year general manager and coach Bryan Murray says, "Carson's line must have won five games for us. But what I like about him most is he's got a good head on his shoulders. He really cares about what's going on with this team."
Playing in the tight-checking Norris Division and on a team that has a pretty fair center named Steve Yzerman playing ahead of him, Carson may have seen the last of his days as a 50-goal scorer. Going into this season, he had scored a startling 43% of his goals on the power play, but Yzerman gets most of the time in man-advantage situations. At week's end, only two of Carson's 11 goals this season had come on the power play.
Nor does Carson play alongside world-class wings like Kurri and the Kings' Luc Robitaille. "I can accept my role with this team," he says. "What's hard are the expectations. The average fan thinks I'm just a goal scorer. But Bryan doesn't emphasize numbers. He told me earlier this year, 'I kept hearing how weak you were defensively. Am I missing something?' The important thing is that things are heading in the right direction on this team."
Indeed, through Sunday the Red Wings were 16-14-4, which is a nine-point improvement over their 11-18-5 start of a year ago. Carson had 29 points centering a line with Shawn Burr and Bob Probert. "He's not going to get the points on this team that he did in L.A.," says Burr, a defensive specialist who, with 12 goals at week's end, is off to the best offensive start of his career. "But you might as well give Jimmy two or three of my goals. He draws all the attention, then slides the puck over to me, so all I have to do is push it in."
Such a play occurred on Nov. 27, when Gretzky and the Kings were in town. Carson had set up John Chabot for a power-play goal that gave Detroit a 3-1 third-period lead before Los Angeles rallied to tie the score with 4:36 left. Last season that would have been the death knell for the Wings. The momentum was against them; the crowd was fiat. Suddenly, with 2:05 to go, Carson darted into the L.A. zone, collected a loose puck and wheeled behind the net. As both Kings defensemen converged on him, he dished a neat little backhand pass to the onrushing Probert, who buried the winning goal.
Afterward, Carson and his girlfriend, Paula Alexander, slid into the front seat of her car. They were meeting family and friends for sandwiches—Carson's parents, five or six of his 200-plus cousins in the Detroit area and a couple of teammates. Carson was still basking in the glow of the victory, the third of a streak that would reach five—the Red Wings' best stretch of hockey in two years. "A lot of good things are happening on this team, you know?" he said. "It's fun. But can you imagine...."
Here Carson's voice drifted to the edge of whimsy. You could almost see the images inside his head, almost see him as a 10-year-old, snapping pucks into that goal in his basement while the radio broadcast the games. "Can you imagine if that game had been played in the old Olympia?" he said. "Man, that would have been something."