Scott Darling looked fully at ease Tuesday during a drop-in visit to Raleigh Center Ice, surprising some young hockey campers.
There was none of the edginess or underlying defensiveness from last season, the goalie’s first with the Carolina Hurricanes, when there was a sense he did not have a good fit with his new team. He came across as more extroverted, more himself.
Darling, casually dressed in a white T-shirt, took on some rapid-fire questions from kids at the Canes’ summer camp and later from the media -- about superstitions and tattoos, Cam Ward and Petr Mrazek, Bill Peters and Rod Brind’Amour. About his big, bushy beard.
Darling has owned up to last season, that it was a bad one for him, that it hurt the team. He talked again Tuesday of a renewed determination to be much better and prove himself again, of losing 15 pounds and wanting to lose five more before training camp, working out, taking pilates for the first time, boxing, watching what he eats.
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“I’m preparing 100 percent better than last year,” he said. “I’m confident in my goaltending as a whole. I’ve proven I can do it and that I can play, and now it’s just having that confidence and that foundation.
“To know you worked as hard as you could during the summer to be ready in the season should give me the confidence I need.”
He’s a Raleigh homeowner now. His girl friend lives with him, he says. There’s a dog, a Great Dane named “Moose,” for them to care for and feed.
“I have everything together here and feel comfortable now,” he said.
There has been much change around him. Peters left after the past season to coach the Calgary Flames and Brind’Amour will be getting his first shot at being a head coach this year. Ward, long the Canes’ franchise goalie, left in free agency and Mrazek signed to be the Canes’ second goalie.
“I’m excited for Rod. It’s great for him get that chance,” Darling said. “He gets it. He played, obviously, and had an amazing career. ... He knows what he’s talking about and I’m excited for him to take over.”
One of the kids asked Darling, “Are you like the lead goalie now or still the backup?” That cut to the core.
“You know, it’s an open competition,” Darling said. “We’re actually kind of similar goaltenders, aggressive, athletic goalies. So he and I will be duking it out for the No. 1 job.”
Darling noted he changes goalie sticks for every game. He said it has nothing to do with superstition, and he would like to go through as many as possible this season after playing in 43 games in 2017-18.
Another part of his every-game routine is ... well, throwing up before the game. If he’s starting, he’s retching. Butterflies, he said. They never go away.
“It’s a big deal to play in the NHL, a lot of pressure to be there for your teammates and fans and coaches,” he said. “A lot rides on a goalie. It’s nerve-racking every game.”
Who knows, a change in nutrition might help that. And the change has not been a small one, he said.
“Last year I ate out every meal,” he said. “I get like one cheat meal a week now. My girl friend is awesome, counting my calories and counting my proteins and healthy fats. ... She’s vegetarian, so that helps.”
It’s a lot of organic food, he said. A lot of Coke Zero. “No burgers or things like that,” he added.
But eating smarter, working out harder and dropping pounds doesn’t always make for better play in net. That has to be proven when training camp begins, when the season begins, when the games count.
Darling was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup champions in 2015. The tattoo on his right arm is a visual reminder of his biggest moment in hockey -- a Chicago kid winning the Cup with his hometown team.
The Hurricanes haven’t been a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009. Darling might be tempted to add some new ink if that nine-year drought, the longest in the league, ends this season.
“I think our roster has really improved this year and I think we’re actually going to surprise a lot of people,” Darling said. “Every team’s goal every year is to make the playoffs and see what happens. But I have a lot of faith we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s where I stand on that.”