There’s probably some goalie in the Southern Professional Hockey League who recently rode a bus from one small rink to another thinking about the Rockford IceHogs’ Scott Darling. As recently as the 2011-12 season, Darling was playing for the Mississippi RiverKings, toiling away in the Single-A circuit that hadn’t produced an NHL player before this fall.
Two years later, Darling became the first to go from the SPHL to the NHL when his 32 saves helped the Blackhawks beat the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 26, possibly making the Lemont native a role model for players at the Single-A level.
Darling wasn’t sure if that was the case, but he gladly offers advice to any goalie – or player – in the lower levels of the game trying to move up.
“I tell them they need a good agent, and they’ve got to do the leg work,” Darling said. “They’ve got to follow box scores, see who’s getting hurt, where the spots are opening up and let their agent know or let somebody know to call those teams. You’ve got to be really proactive looking for call-ups, and just to stick with it.
“It’s a long and not-always exciting process but if it’s what you want to do you’ve just got to stick with it and stay motivated.”
With help from agent Matt Keator, that’s what Darling did. After coming to grips with issues with alcohol and a social anxiety problem that held back his progress, Darling moved from the SPHL through the alphabet soup of the minors, playing in the now-defunct Central Hockey League and the ECHL. He played in the AHL for one game with the Hamilton Bulldogs during the 2012-13 campaign and then 26 with the Milwaukee Admirals last season.
“He has come a long way finally realizing that he had to change his lifestyle if he was going to maximize his talent and make it to the NHL,” Keator said via email. “His total dedication and focus to his goal is impressive. He is just getting started and I am excited to see what he can do in the coming years.”
He was signed by the Blackhawks last offseason but was expected to be the fourth goalie on the organization’s depth chart and behind Michael Leighton for any calls to Chicago. A strong training camp changed that, and his journey to the NHL was completed when he beat the Senators.
“It makes it all worth it. The long nights on the bus down south, working a regular job every summer so I could afford to pursue my pro career during the winter,” Darling said. “To do all that, it makes it worth it and it’s been a lot of fun to share it with players and coaches and organizations that gave me a place to play when I needed it.”
For now, Darling’s in the AHL with the IceHogs despite going 5-2-0 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in the NHL. In Rockford, Darling’s been one of the keys for the first-place IceHogs, going 9-4-2 with a 2.17 GAA and .929 save percentage, stats that can only help him return to the NHL.
And that’s his goal. Even after all he’s gone through, Darling isn’t satisfied with having reached the NHL for seven games.
“He’s a great kid. He’s very professional in his approach, very humble,” IceHogs coach Ted Dent said. “Comes to work every day to get better.”
That’s what Darling’s trying to do with the IceHogs. And if he does, it’ll probably lead to another stint in the NHL.
“It was obviously surreal to get a taste of it but that just makes you hungrier once you’ve had a taste,” Darling said. “I’ve only played 40-odd games in the American league so my focus is trying to be an elite goalie in the American league and that will pave the way hopefully for another opportunity in the NHL.”