As Scott Darling walked into the BMO Harris Bank Center for the first day of Rockford IceHogs training camp Monday, he discovered more and more nostalgia around every corner.
“It’s awesome,” he said Tuesday. “It brings back a lot of good memories. A lot of the same staff’s here; [I’ve] seen a lot of old faces.”
Darling is in camp on a professional tryout offer, which can be terminated at any time. If not for a numbers crunch — goaltenders Matt Tomkins and Tom Auburn are currently “unfit to play” for Rockford, leaving Cale Morris as the only other available goalie — he probably wouldn’t be there at all.
Blackhawks vice president Mark Bernard, who oversees the IceHogs, said he was “very upfront” with Darling — when offering him the PTO — that he’s “not sure where this is going to go.”
But even if this return to the Hawks organization lasts only a few days or weeks, Darling looked and sounded genuinely thrilled to be back.
“I still have some gas left in the tank,” he said. “I’m only 32 and I think I’ve still got it. I feel like I’d regret it in 10 years if I said, ‘Oh this is a tough year, I’m just going to stop playing.’ I’m going to try and keep going as long as they’ll have me.”
Scott Darling, looking quite jolly, on his Rockford PTO:— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) January 26, 2021
"It's exciting to be back. A lot of the same people are still here, so it's great to see them." pic.twitter.com/b6FA5i47z1
Much has changed for Darling since 2014-15, his one and only season in Rockford. For that matter, much has changed for Darling since 2016-17, his final year in the Blackhawks organization.
He’s no longer a wide-eyed prospect trying to complete an inspirational rise from the bottom rung of U.S. professional hockey. He’s been all around the hockey world, and his career rose to the pinnacle of the sport — winning the 2015 Stanley Cup — before falling off a cliff again.
After all that, he’s learned how to anything in stride.
“It’s pretty funny to be on the other side of it,” he said. “I’m trying to make the kids feel comfortable and welcome. You can tell, just like I was my first time here, you’re nervous and scared to do something wrong or ask questions or stuff like that. I just try to...talk to everyone, keep it light.”
For as stellar of a goaltender as Hawks fans remember Darling being — he went 39-17-9 with a .923 save percentage in three seasons as a backup, plus 3-1 with a .936 save percentage during five appearances in the 2015 playoffs — his past few seasons have been objectively dreadful.
He crashed out of a big contract with the Hurricanes, winning just 15 of 48 starts over two seasons with an .887 save percentage, and then struggled again with an .898 save percentage last season with Innsbruck HC in Austria.
The year in Europe, his return home to Chicago and his marriage in July nonetheless refreshed him mentally.
“That year abroad was a year to decompress from two years in Carolina that didn’t go my way,” he said. “Then you’re in your house for so many months, that hunger builds up inside you to want to get back on the ice and play games.”
He attended the Panthers’ NHL camp earlier this month on a PTO, but had nowhere to go once their AHL affiliate opted out of the 2021 season. He then entertained some European offers before finally receiving the call from Bernard.
He’s not sure how long this stint in Rockford will last. The Rockford staff isn’t sure, either. The IceHogs play a preseason game Wednesday against the Chicago Wolves, then open their 30-game regular season next week.
But in the meantime, Darling can safely say he’s back in the Hawks organization — and he’s enjoying every minute.
“My role is whatever they want it to be,” he said. “Hopefully it’d be playing, but regardless I can be a good mentor to these goalies here.”