Former NHLer living the dream again . . . but in a different way

Tom McCarthy went from the NHL, to prison, to coaching . . . and found himself along the way

Tina Comeau
Published on November 9, 2013

Tom McCarthy used to play in the NHL but found himself on the wrong path in life after retirement. But he's coaching again and he's made it part of his mission to keep young people on the right path and have them appreciate the things that are important in life. It's not all about hockey, he says, family and life are important. TINACOMEAU PHOTO


By Tina Comeau



Tom McCarthy sat on the bus, shackled and handcuffed, being driven to Leavenworth Penitentiary. The man sitting next to him, a convicted murderer, he only knew from having seen him on the news.

He couldn’t help but think to himself, why had he allowed himself to travel on the wrong path? More significantly, how was he going to handle this?

In his early years, McCarthy had driven on a lot of buses. But none like this particular one.

“I went from being in the NHL and riding buses, to now I’m in the federal system riding a different bus,” he says. “And that was the toughest team I ever played on.”

McCarthy had gone from living the dream, to being awake in a nightmare.

McCarthy shared his story while he was in Yarmouth and Digby as a coach of the CJHL’s prospects game Team East, which coincided with the World Junior A Challenge that was being held here. A good friend of Yarmouth Mariners' head coach Laurie Barron, Barron invited McCarthy to share his story with the members of the Yarmouth junior A team. He met with them on Wednesday evening, Nov. 6.

Like the line from the Jerry Maguire movie, he had them at hello.

McCarthy had gotten to do in life what so many young hockey players dream of. He got to play in the NHL. He was just 18 when he was drafted, surrounded by men in the dressing room, some old enough to be his father. Admittedly it made him grow up faster than he might have otherwise.

Still, he had great success in the years after he had played midget hockey for the Oshawa Generals, where he was one of two midget players drafted ahead of Wayne Gretzky in the 1977 OMJHL midget draft. In the 1979 NHL entry draft he was chosen 10th overall in the first round by the Minnesota North Stars. He also played with the Boston Bruins, played in an NHL all-star game and had two cracks at trying to win a Stanley Cup. The New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers got in the way of that dream.

When he finished his career he had 178 goals and 399 points.

It’s the path he followed in retirement from the NHL that found him a seat on that bus headed to Leavenworth.

“As I started to drift away from hockey . . . I found myself associating with the wrong people,” he says – the type of people for whom booze, drugs and women were a way of life. He knew about the drugs and what these people did for a living, but he associated with them anyway, before eventually leaving that situation and going back to the family restaurant businesses. By now hockey was his past. He was doing something different in life.

Only it was about to become really different.

Because one day, far removed from the NHL, came a knock on his door. It wasn’t a nice knock, it was a violent one – the kind of knock that says open this door now or we’re coming in. It was the FBI and other United States agencies that investigate drug crimes.

“And they were there to arrest Tom McCarthy,” he says.

And he didn't know why.

Turns out he had become guilty by association because of the types of people he had chosen to hang out with. They were bad, an investigation had concluded, and therefore so was he. It was after being convicted in 1994 of conspiracy to traffic dugs that he found himself on that bus, sharing a seat with a convicted murderer.

But going to prison wasn’t the worst feeling for him, he says. Yes, he had shamed himself, but more importantly he had shamed his family who had supported him so much throughout his life. This was worse than the five-years-and-10-month punishment he received.

And so he didn’t view prison as going to jail, rather he viewed it as going to college, where he had to learn how to be himself again. How to get back to his roots.

He turned to hockey again.

After convincing the warden, who turned out to be a hockey chap from Cornwall, Ontario, that there would be more good than bad to come out of handing prisoners hockey sticks – can you say potential weapons? – he started up a hockey school as a means of giving prisoners something else to divert their attention. This led to Saturday morning tryouts and an eventual league where rosters filled with thieves, money launderers, murderers and other convicted felons played ground hockey against the guards. He coached men he was afraid of and taught them about hockey. Most importantly, he taught them, and himself, that what side of the tracks you find yourself falling on is your decision and it takes just as much energy to decide to make the right choices as it does to make the wrong ones.

Eventually through the persistence of his family, namely his dad, McCarthy was transferred to a Canadian prison to complete his sentence. He was released in 1998. From there he decided to rebuild his life

Fast forward to the year 2013. For the past 15 years he’s been involved in coaching junior hockey (he’s currently the head coach of the Espanola Rivermen Junior A team in Ontario in the NOJHL), he’s been a hockey scout and he’s been involved in player development. What he brings to the rink is not just instruction in hockey, but advice about what’s important in life. Family, he says, trumps all.

Don’t live life taking things, or people, for granted, he says. Don’t lower yourself to other people’s level. And unlike those early days in his NHL career when he went from having $5 in his pocket each week to $1,000, he no longer measures success in terms of wealth or material things.

“It’s about how you surround yourself, the people you surround yourself with,” he says. “And it’s about never forgetting where you come from, or what you have to offer.”

McCarthy told the Mariner players that he observed them at the arena interacting with physically and mentally challenged youngsters as part of the Icy Knights program the team is involved with.

“Do you know how much they look forward to having that time with you?” he asked, saying the most precious gift we can offer to others is our time.

“As I teach hockey I often tell my players, you’re a product of your environment,” he says. “You need an environment that attracts the right kind of people to hang out with you.”

If people have inspired or helped you along the way, it’s never to late to pick up the phone and say thank you. And that support you get from your parents, he says, it’s called unconditional love.

“When you understand all of these things, your life will become so much richer,” he says. “That’s how I judge how rich I am. Not by what’s in my pocket, not by what I drive, or what I wear, but what I have surrounding me.”

Says McCarthy, he’s living the dream . . . again.

It’s not the same dream he had when he was in the NHL. In fact, it may be a better one.

“Here I am living my dream but now I’ve refurbished my dream to coaching and teaching life skills,” he says, adding, “Always stop and think about yourself. Do a little inventory on where you’re going and on who you want to be.”

For McCarthy it comes down to this, he says.

How do you want to be spoken about when you’re not in the room?