This is not the first time fate and opportunity have collided for Scott Darling. He has made – remade – a career of identifying the moments when possibilities emerge.
From the outside, the chance to be the Carolina Hurricanes’ No. 1 goalie looks like it may be the most important of any of them, the long-awaited chance to establish himself as a legitimate NHL starter. For Darling, it’s merely the latest in a long chain of opportunities, each of which was necessary to lead to the next, with no margin for error at any point.
No one opportunity was more important than the next, because there’s no other way to get from the lowest rung of the hockey ladder to the top as Darling has.
“For me, every one was the biggest one,” Darling said.
When you spend the first half of your career squandering opportunities like this, drinking them away until he was kicked out of school and washing out at the lowest level of professional hockey, the only way to put together a second act like this – Stanley Cup champion and, now, a starting NHL goalie – is to storm through every door that opens even just the slimmest of cracks to let a glimmer of light through.
It’s a one-in-a-million shot to get from the SPHL – the minor-minor-league whose teams include the Fayetteville Fire Antz – to even play a single game in the NHL. Until New Year’s Eve, when Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves made his cameo in net, Darling was the only player ever to do it. He needed a few breaks along the way. He made the most of them. He didn’t take any for granted.
Now 28, this is Darling’s best chance yet, the rare opportunity to become one of the best in the world at something, to carry a promising young team into the playoffs. It’s as big an opening as there is, the risks and rewards as high as they have ever been. To him, though, it’s no different than it has been for the past six years, since he quit drinking in 2011. After bottoming out, personally and professionally, he hasn’t let a single chance like this slip past. To get here, he couldn’t.
Matt Keator has been Darling’s agent since he was 17. He watched him lose his way, stepped in to help when Darling finally asked for it in July 2011 and watched amazed as the pieces have slowly, but inexorably, fallen into place.
“He got found at certain points,” Keator said. “He found himself, and others found him along the way.”
Darling was spotted early, already a gangly 6-foot-6 as a teenager, leaving Chicago to play prep-school and junior hockey, heavily recruited by college-hockey powerhouse Maine and a sixth-round draft pick of the then-Phoenix Coyotes. His talent was undeniable, but he also felt socially anxious and unsure of himself, a burden he self-medicated with alcohol both before and after he got to Maine, where he was first suspended and then dismissed from the team after his sophomore season.
He turned pro, but the Coyotes had no interest. He took the only job he could find, with the Louisiana Ice Gators of the SPHL, and struggled. He won only six games all season. That summer, he was 22 years old, 40 pounds overweight and headed for oblivion. It was his decision to quit drinking, and his decision to do whatever it took to turn both his life and career around.
All of which is fine. So many people have saved their lives that way. Yet few have still managed to live their dreams to their fullest. Darling was still light years away from the NHL, with no guarantee he’d ever even get close. He grasped any sliver of hope, no matter how small.
“It’s kind of been my thing to just saw the wood in front of you, and just keep working toward the next step,” Darling said.
He started back in the SPHL, the rough-and-tumble, hard-drinking Southern bus league, in Mississippi this time. He stayed clean. He played well. No one really noticed, but it was progress.
That summer, he played in Keator’s summer league in Massachusetts. He was so good in one game, the coach of the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers signed him on the spot. That never happens.
He turned that ECHL gig into an AHL gig with the Nashville Predators. And after another solid season, when the Predators had too many goalies in their organization, he was let go – but had his choice of several landing spots, and chose his hometown Blackhawks.
By the second half of that season, he was the NHL backup. And when Corey Crawford faltered in the first round of the playoffs, Darling stepped in to save the season, going 3-1 in five appearances before Crawford reclaimed control. He didn’t just get his name on the Stanley Cup. He helped put it there.
Two successful seasons backing up Crawford in the NHL later, his contract in Chicago up, Darling had earned a shot to start somewhere. Somewhere turned out to be here, where the Hurricanes needed to go a different direction after two fruitless seasons with Cam Ward and Eddie Lack in net and gave up a surplus third-round pick for his rights before signing him to a four-year contract.
So here he is, at 28, probably with more tread left on the tires than most goalies his age – Darling has never played more than 40 games in a single season – with the experience of having fought through every single level of professional hockey, in six different leagues, to get this opportunity
That’s not how it usually works in the NHL these days. He’s not the hot prospect who was rushed along, the next best thing, the flavor of the month. He’s taken the scenic route. In a hockey culture where everyone is trying to move up as fast as they can from the time they first put on skates, his inadvertent life detour has given him the kind of old-fashioned apprenticeship you don’t see anymore.
When he got to the AHL, he was ready to compete. When he got to the NHL, he was ready to be a backup. And now, with the Hurricanes, he believes he’s ready to be a playoff-capable starter.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Darling said. “It’s kind of what I’ve been hoping for my whole career, to have this opportunity.”
Of all the forks in the road that have come his way over the past six years, this is not only the latest but the best chance Darling has had. He’s seen enough come and go to know exactly what they’re worth. And the answer is: When you’ve been as low as Darling once was, to get to this point, they’re all worth the same.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock