After a terrible season, Carolina Hurricanes goalie works towards a comeback
One of several tattoos on Scott Darling's right forearm is of a phoenix, that mythical creature that rose from the ashes. The same image is on his goalie mask, a reminder of his unlikely climb from castaway at the lowest level of pro hockey to Stanley Cup champion.
He arrives at The Performance Academy in Raleigh on a steamy Monday in July at the beginning of a different ascent, trying to work his way back from one of the worst seasons by a goalie in the NHL's modern era and into the good graces of the Carolina Hurricanes.
There's not much on the line: Just his career. And the Hurricanes' nine-year playoff drought.
Bill Burniston, the Hurricanes' strength and conditioning coach, is waiting for Darling, who arrives wearing USA Hockey shorts from his recent stint with the national team at the world championships. A few other athletes are working out, teenaged baseball and hockey players, but it's a holiday week and the cavernous gym is mostly empty. Burniston puts down his coffee and warms up with Darling by playing catch. This isn't part of the program, but Darling has a new baseball glove he's trying to break in.
Soon, he's on the indoor turf field surrounded by four LED lights on stands, set up in a square about 20 feet on a side. Darling has to dance between them, responding as they turn on and off, constantly shuffling and changing direction. Cam Ward, who arrived at the gym shortly after Darling, a day after signing as a free agent to fill Darling's old job as a backup for the Chicago Blackhawks, joins him for some of it.
“A good ankle-breaker,” Darling says.
“If I wanted to break your ankles, I'd do other things,” Burniston says.
“I'm getting turf burn, I'm moving so fast.”
“Your feet are smoking.”
It's the kind of offseason workout NHL players all over the world are doing to get ready for the season, and it's what Darling apparently wasn't doing last summer when he signed a four-year, $16.6 million contract, came in out of shape, struggled in net and became the single most critical factor why the Hurricanes missed the playoffs yet again (although there were several).
“If Darling has just an average season, and I think he’s going to have one better than that, we will be a playoff team,” former owner Peter Karmanos said before the season. Darling did not — and the Hurricanes were not.
The Hurricanes never won more than four games in a row. Of their five winning streaks of three or four games, four ended with a switch from Ward to Darling in net. He was the ultimate cooler, the guy you hope never sits down at your blackjack table.
His general manager got fired and his coach left before he could get fired. The Hurricanes' new management team did have one opportunity to trade Darling's contract this summer but decided his history as a backup with the Blackhawks offered enough reason to gamble that Darling, properly supported and motivated and still only 29, could recapture his previous form.
Wherever Darling is headed, and nobody knows how any of this will work out, this is where it begins. Four weeks in, Darling has lost at least 15 pounds and looks leaner and more defined, even if his red beard remains just as bushy. The Hurricanes are more concerned about his body fat than his raw weight, and don't want to track either closely at this early point in the process, but it's safe to say he's closer to his roster weight of 232 pounds than he was when last season started or ended. There is a long way still to go.
All of which leads to one very obvious question with no obvious answer: Why wasn't he doing this last year?
“I'm not really sure,” Darling said. “It was a weird summer for me, in my personal life. I'd grown comfortable in Chicago. I'm from Chicago. That was the longest I'd played for a team, three years. Of all the professional teams I've played for, that was the longest I'd played anywhere. I had a life there. I had a house there. It was a big move for me personally. I think I just let my foot off the gas and figured it would just work out as is. I learned pretty quickly you can't do that at this level.”
Sweating in the spotlight
In Darling's first public appearance after the Hurricanes traded a third-round pick to get him from the Blackhawks last summer, he met with the local media in the center of the Hurricanes' locker room, the usual Triangle gaggle of four or five television cameras and a dozen or so people. At 6-foot-6, he stood high above the fray.
The sweat started as a trickle, a drop off the tip of his nose. Midway through the interview, he was sweating so badly a Hurricanes' media-relations staffer had to bring him a towel to wipe his face. It was a full-on, Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News,” soaked-shirt episode. This was unusual enough to raise a few eyebrows: “I have never seen that before,” WTVD sports anchor Joe Mazur, in attendance that day, said later.
All the same, it fit with Darling's story. Here was a guy whose acknowledged social anxiety was so crippling that he nearly drank himself out of the sport at one point as he self-medicated with alcohol, getting thrown out of college, going unsigned by the team that drafted him, tumbling down the ladder until he finally wrestled with all of it. He hit bottom, got help and became the first player to rise from the lowest level of professional hockey — the SPHL, the southern bus league known for fisticuffs and cheap beer — to the NHL.
Put Darling in front of a bunch of television cameras and he's so uncomfortable his body starts to rebel. Put him on the ice, alone in his mask and gear, anonymous behind that armor against the world, and he can play at an elite level.
That's how he rebuilt his career, from the SPHL to the ECHL to the AHL to the Nashville Predators to the Blackhawks, where he was a critical piece of their 2015 championship team, stepping in unexpectedly to win three playoff games on the way to the Stanley Cup, posting spectacular numbers in limited action.
That was the Darling the Hurricanes thought they were getting from the Blackhawks, the understudy ready for the big time, the one then-general manager Ron Francis signed to that gargantuan contract, the ultimate gesture of blind faith in a goalie who had never played more than 40 games in a season. Instead, they got something they were never expecting.
"He came last year to camp, he was out of shape," current Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. "He never got in shape all year."
It was hard to tell just how unfit Darling was when he arrived at training camp. His weight and body fat certainly didn't appear to meet NHL standards, but the Hurricanes didn't know him well enough then to know just how far below standards they were. There's an element of trust with any new player that he'll show up in prime condition, to make a good first impression if nothing else. Last September, that was all they had to go on.
“It looked like his weight was up. It looked like his body comp (fat) was up,” Burniston said. “Those are some things that we saw at first. From his testing, his testing numbers, they didn't really send up too many red flags for us. It's very difficult when a player comes in, a new player. You have to develop a rapport with them. It's hard, because you don't know what his peak was. You suspect it's not where we want it.”
Darling was OK – not outstanding, but certainly passable – for the first two months of the season, before things turned sour. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when, but Nov. 22 might have been it. A harmless flip from center ice by New York Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad somehow eluded Darling's mitt and ended up in the net and on blooper reels forever. It was the Rangers' second goal in the opening 150 seconds. Darling would go on to allow four more goals in a 6-1 loss, facing only 21 shots.
'Everything was going wrong'
Darling became a rotating selection of technical flaws. One game his glove was slow, the next he was too far out of his net, the next he was weak on his post. Darling was scrambling, overcompensating, lost. He compares it, now, to quicksand: The harder he fought, the more he sank.
“It just seemed like everything was going wrong when I got in the net,” Darling said.
By the time then-coach Bill Peters mercilessly left him in for all eight goals of an 8-1 loss at the Toronto Maple Leafs just before Christmas, Darling was shot.
Physically, he might have been in good enough shape to play once a week as a backup, but he couldn't handle the load of being a night-in, night-out starter. (The Toronto game was the second half of a back-to-back; Darling had earned the start with a solid performance in a home win the night before.)
Mentally, he was in even worse shape.
What do you do when putting on that mask only makes things worse?
Where do you hide when your place of refuge becomes a personal hell?
Darling would go home, to an empty apartment, to stew. As alone as he may have been there, he dreaded returning to the rink, where nothing seemed to go right, where he felt like he was letting his teammates down.
“You're just waiting to go to the rink the next day, not excited about going to the rink, and it just snowballs,” Darling said. “The months feel long. The season feels long. It's definitely not an ideal way to go through the season.”
His teammates could see this. How could they not? There was nothing they could do to help, technically. Goalies are an island unto themselves anyway, huddled in the corner with their coach like devotees of some strange cult. But even as colleagues, as people, Darling's teammates felt powerless to intervene.
"The tough part is, we didn't really know him," Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said. "We didn't really know him coming into the year. We didn't know what was normal for him, what was odd. And really, in effect, how to help. If you don't know a guy, know his tendencies, what he's done to be successful to this point, it's tough to give advice."
The Hurricanes probably should have traded for a stopgap goalie from another team, a veteran minor-leaguer with NHL experience, to allow Darling a leave of absence to collect himself or even a few weeks in the AHL to rebuild his confidence. But they did not, nor did they think prospect Alex Nedeljkovic was ready for extended time in the NHL. So the Hurricanes instead did nothing, leaving Darling to marinate in his increasing despair.
Ward, predictably, wore down under the increased workload after posting excellent numbers as a backup over the first three months. By January, in Darling's sporadic appearances, the team had started playing completely different in front of him: visibly scared and on the perpetual verge of panic. The Hurricanes' season fizzled. Darling finished with the worst save percentage of any qualifying goalie in the league, and based on several different advanced metrics, had one of the four worst seasons in the past decade by any goalie to appear in half of his team's games and one of the 11 worst in the past 30 years, per hockey-reference.com.
All of which raises another obvious question, given Darling's personal history: Darling says alcohol was not part of the problem last season, but he also won't address it specifically beyond that. “I'm not here to talk about that,” he said. Waddell declined to comment.
'Time to buckle down'
A few things happened after the season came to its merciful conclusion. The Hurricanes pushed hard for USA Hockey to take Darling to the world championships, and he won a bronze medal in Denmark in a backup role. For the first time in a long time, hockey was fun again. The Hurricanes invited him to speak to their prospects at their development camp last month, an attempt to make him feel like more a part of the team.
Most important, Darling was unhappy enough with his performance last season that he was determined not to repeat it.
“I made the decision a while ago that it's time to buckle down and do everything I can possibly do to be the best goalie I can next season, and that's been my whole plan this summer,” Darling said.
Waddell said the team has provided Darling access to counseling and other resources, but at a minimum, Darling is expected to arrive at training camp in peak condition, all of which is why and how he ended up in the gym with Burniston, not just Monday but several days each week of the steamy summer so far.
“I'm really thrilled. He's been great,” Burniston said. “I didn't know what to expect, to be completely honest. This isn't easy, coming in early in the morning and working all day. I think he's seeing results and that's why he continues to come.”
The Hurricanes, by the end of June, had seen enough from Darling in the early part of the offseason that they decided not to pursue a salary-dumping trade or $8 million contract buyout. They also brought in former Detroit Red Wings starter Petr Mrazek as a free agent to compete for the starting job.
"When you looked at the free-agent list of goaltenders, they were all kind of the same at that point," Waddell said. "Darling would be the most talented guy in that group. But we needed a commitment from Scott. Anything he gets at this point he has to earn. He understands that."
Darling is in the second phase of his summer conditioning program. The first was basic stuff, building a foundation. Eventually, he'll move away from strength training and into more explosive workouts, and then onto the ice. For now, he's on a cycle that includes four days with Burniston – two days of upper body, one of lower body, one of general training – to go with one day each of Pilates and yoga.
“Sunday is recovery, although I've had to get him to take Sunday off,” Burniston says.
“Hey, I was in here on Sunday,” Darling interjects, only hearing half the conversation.
“That's what I'm saying,” Burniston says. “You're supposed to be off!"
This workout is upper-body focused and the plan includes core strengthening, sprinting, the reaction-time work with the LED lights and a lot of weightlifting, followed by some interval training on the turf and on a resistance bike. Later, after a series of bench presses and biceps work, Darling does 90-second high-intensity intervals where he lies on his back and has to lift his chest and legs together in various ways.
Ninety seconds of that is interminable. After Darling makes it through his final set, he falls back on the artificial turf, spread-eagled.
“That's the whole idea, right?” Burniston says. “I'm trying to push you to the edge.”
Darling has spent enough time on the edge. He needs to find a comfort zone here if he's going to be successful. These workouts are part of it, giving him the base of fitness he needs to play regularly in the NHL, and that's not something that can be done during the season. It has to be done now, in the summer, when there's time to focus on it.
That's not all. Darling bought a house in north Raleigh. His girlfriend has moved in with him, and they're getting a Great Dane puppy, his first dog of his own. He has a nutritionist to prepare menus and meals. He is doing the things he should have done last summer, but there's nothing he can do now about the past.
“It's all on him, right?” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. “What we all want to see is him put in the time, and that will give him the confidence that he put in the work so when he gets in net he's not worrying if he's in shape or done enough. It's not just him, that's anybody. But with him, obviously, guys are going to be on him."
There's no way to make amends – to the team, to his teammates, to the fans, to himself – for what happened last season. But he still may be able to do something about the future, and his path forward starts in this gym.
“There's not too much else I can do, to be honest,” Darling said. “I've been working out really hard, trying to eat really healthy. It's more just mentally kind of letting last season go, not dwelling on the past and moving forward and being confident in myself.”
The mythical phoenix would re-create itself from its own ashes, born anew each time. The myth doesn't specify how easy that was. Darling has already done it once, in circumstances perhaps more improbable than these. There is no room to fall short this time. Mrazek, in his own way, has as much to prove as Darling. The competition for playing time in net will be unfettered.
No one knows how this ends, not Darling, not anyone. All he can do is try to get better each day than he was the day before, in hopes a different kind of summer leads to a different kind of winter.