Scott Darling was done. Finished.
Oh, he was playing hockey, but he might have been closer to a beer league than the National Hockey League. Clinging to a roster spot on a godforsaken hockey outpost called the Louisiana IceGators of the Southern Professional Hockey League, the dream the Lemont native once had of playing in the NHL was pretty much dead.
“You have kind of different concerns there than you do here,” Darling told the Sun-Times on Sunday night, standing in the middle of the Blackhawks dressing room in a finely tailored suit. “Like, you know, trying to pay your phone bill every month.”
He wasn’t even any good, posting a 3.83 goals-against average and going 6-22-0.
“I mean, at one point, I was on the worst team in the worst league, and they weren’t exactly raving to have me there,” Darling said.
How Darling fell to that low point is a familiar one. How he rose to possibly a permanent roster spot with one of the NHL’s premier franchise — his hometown team, no less — is an extraordinary one. The Hawks are Darling’s 12th team in less than five years.
How does Scott Darling happen? How does a story so good, so unlikely, actually happen? It starts, as these so often do, with a stumble.
It’s hard to believe when talking with the almost aggressively humble, soft-spoken 25-year-old now, but Darling was a self-described “wild child” just a handful of years ago. His 6-foot-6 frame and goaltending skill made him a sixth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007. His partying got him cut after two years at the University of Maine. When he turned pro as a result, the Coyotes sent Darling to their ECHL affiliate — in Las Vegas. It went about as badly as you’d expect, and he never played a game for the Wranglers.
Getting cut from the ECHL was a sobering moment for Darling — literally and figuratively. But nobody wanted to touch him given his track record.
“There were some personal things going on for me in my late teens and early 20s, and that kind of slowed things down for me and got me started at a lower point,” Darling said. “I wasn’t maximizing my training and my hockey experience, and then there was the stigma that comes along with being a wild card, too. I had to take some time to rebuild my credibility. So I got serious about my training and about hockey again.”
The climb was slow and agonizing. The SPHL. The CHL. The ECHL. Finally, a break with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals last season, and everything started to click. Darling was 13-6-2 with a 2.00 GAA and .933 save percentage, catching the eye of his hometown Hawks, who signed him to a cheap one-year, two-way contract on July 1.
At training camp, he looked like anything but a guy who could barely hack it in the lowest rung of pro hockey.
“He came out of nowhere in August, when I was shooting on him this summer,” Patrick Sharp. “I thought he was big, tough to score on. Obviously, he had a great training camp, he got a chance to play in the NHL and he’s proven he belongs.”
Indeed, a pair of injuries to Corey Crawford gave Darling a chance at the highest level, a level he figured he might never reach. And he’s played astonishingly well, going 5-2-0 with a 1.97 GAA and .937 save percentage, winning over Hawks coach Joel Quenneville and possibly bumping the very solid Antti Raanta out of the backup job when Crawford returns this weekend.
You won’t catch Darling celebrating out on the town, or patting himself on the back. After games now, he goes back to his hotel and watches TV on the couch — “I lead the boring, dedicated life now, but it’s paying off,” he said with a smile. But every now and then, he gets a chance to catch his breath and reflect on the past five years, and how instead of letting it break him, he let it shape him.
“Everything led me to this point, all of it,” Darling said. “My dad always told me, just saw the wood in front of you. And that’s what I tried to do the last few years. There some rough days, and I’ve taken a long road here. But it makes you appreciate being here. Every day in the NHL is just amazing.”