Goaltender Scott Darling has been the surprise story for the Chicago Blackhawks this season. In two call-ups from the AHL this year, he has posted a 5-2 record and a 1.97 goals allowed average. A far cry from 2010, when Darling was near the bottom of the pro hockey landscape. Off-ice troubles led to him to leave the University of Maine after two seasons. And despite being drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007, he did not make their team.
But in 2011, Darling made a conscious choice to turn his life around. He stopped drinking alcohol, lost weight and worked diligently with his goaltending coach, Brian Daccord. Darling quickly moved up the pro hockey ranks, playing a second season in the Southern Professional Hockey League, then progressing to the ECHL and last year to the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. The Blackhawks noticed Darling’s play in Milwaukee, and signed him to a two-way contract over the summer. He is currently the number one goalie for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
Born in Newport News, Virginia, Darling “moved around a ton until second grade,” living in Washington state and Alabama before his family finally settled in the Chicago suburb of Lemont. He followed the Blackhawks avidly during his youth. Now, he’s played seven games for them, and is likely to play more before the season is through. I recently spoke with Darling about his ascent to the NHL, being teammates with Gustav Nyquist in college, his appearance on “Road to the Winter Classic,” and getting into a goalie fight.
Sal Barry: What were your earliest hockey memories?
Scott Darling: When I lived just outside of Tacoma, Washington, my dad played goalie. I used to go watch him play in a men’s league. We also went to Tacoma Rockets games. We were season ticket holders. I was probably in…gosh..I don’t even know if I was in kindergarten yet. I used to go to every game. Those were probably my earliest hockey memories, going to the Rockets games and watching my dad play in a men’s league.
SB: When did you decide that you wanted to play hockey?
SD: It was around the same time. My first team was the Tacoma Junior Rockets. I started skating when I was three. I started playing goalie when I was five.
SB: What made you decide to be a goalie at such a young age?
SD: My dad was a goalie, so I wanted to be like him, and wear the pads. And I wasn’t very good at forward. I kind of had a knack for goaltending and I liked it and I stuck with it.
SB: Were you tall for your age?
SD: No, I actually wasn’t. I was a late grower. Between 16 and 17 I grew a ton. I grew about eight inches. So I kind of shot up in high school and then got awkward for a while, then kind of came together when I was 18.
SB: You are considered agile for a guy who is 6’6″.
SD: I was very lucky. I kind of lost it for a while, while I was growing. Once I got comfortable with my size I was able to bring it back and not lose too much.
SB: Do you have any memories of your youth hockey?
SD: You definitely sacrifice a lot of your childhood for the sport. You’re playing every weekend. But I loved doing it. I had a great time. I loved going to Canada for the weekend, or to Detroit, playing travel. A special experience for me is that I got to go to the Quebec Peewee World Tournament in Quebec City. That was awesome.
SB: Patrick Kane remembers you from youth hockey. Do you remember him from back then, too?
SD: [Laughs] Yeah, we played Triple A against each other, when he was with the Buffalo Regals. And we went to all-star camps in Detroit together. He was a dominant player when we were 12 and 13. He’d pull moves in practice that, when you’re that young, you just don’t have a chance to stop. We hung out then, and had some mutual friends. But we had different career paths. It was good to see him [again] and he remembered me and we caught up right away when I got here. He’s a real class act, and it was fun to reconnect with him.
SB: When you were growing up, who were your hockey heroes?
SD: Ed Belfour and Olaf Kolzig. I was lucky enough to meet Ed Belfour a few times when I was younger, and I was blown away by him because he was the goalie for the Blackhawks. And he played with so much fire and passion. I loved the way he played goal.
And Kolzig; I was lucky enough to see him play live a few times, in the  playoffs when Washington was playing Buffalo. He was huge (6’3″), and they called him “Godzilla.” I loved his helmet, which had Godzilla breaking through with D.C. in the background. I was lucky enough to meet him two years ago when I went to Washington’s development camp. (Kolzig was the Captial’s goalie coach.) It was pretty exciting.
SB: What’s the best thing about being a goalie?
SD: You have an opportunity to have a huge impact on every game. There’s a lot of pressure in the position. If you don’t play well, generally, you don’t win. There are times when the guys score four, five, six goals for you, but you try not to [depend on] that. I like the pressure and I like the opportunity to be a difference-maker in games.
SB: What do you remember about playing with Gustav Nyquist at the University of Maine?
SD: When Gus showed up at school, we were like, this guy’s a stud. We knew it right away. He was drafted in the fourth round by Detroit, and we were like, wow, that’s a steal. I was surprised he lasted three years with Maine (and didn’t go pro sooner). I remember how he used to back check and strip pucks from opponents all the time. That’s one of the things he does. His transition as an NHLer was probably a little slow because of the depth that Detroit had, but once he got there, he’s unbelievable. I know it’s huge for him, being from Sweden. He was a huge fan of Henrik Zetterberg while in school. Now he’s on a line with him, so it’s got to be pretty exciting.
SB: What was the turning point in your career?
SD: It was after my first pro season, after I played for the Louisiana Ice Gators (2010-11). I made the decision over that summer to really dedicate myself to my goal, and that was to play in the NHL. From that point forward, it was just doing the right things and trying to work as hard as I can. It didn’t happen overnight, but it definitely paid off.
SB: And at what point did you realize that you could make it to the NHL?
SD: I had the opportunity to go to Nashville’s training camp last year, after I signed with Milwaukee. That was the first time I went to a main camp and got tested by elite guys like Shea Weber. After going to that camp, that’s when I felt good, like I could actually play at this level; that it’s not out of reach.
SB: When you played with the Milwaukee Admirals last season, you got into a goalie fight with Sami Aittokallio of Lake Erie. What happened?
SD: It was a lopsided game. I had a bad night. We were losing 5-1. And there was a big, near-line brawl that broke out. The guys actually didn’t end up fighting, but a big scrum broke out, and Sami and I looked at each other. We didn’t know each other, but kind of just gave each other the look and he came flying down at me. So credit to him for charging out to center ice. And we had a pretty good tussle. (video)
SB: You played the second half of a Blackhawks’ preseason game (September 23, 2014) against the Red Wings. What was it like to finally play on United Center ice?
SD: It was overwhelming. I couldn’t even think while I was out there. I just tried to play. I faced maybe ten shots, and we won in overtime 2-1. I made a save or two on Nyquist, which was fun. Just having my family in the stands everywhere was a great feeling. I was pretty happy after that. I didn’t know I’d get another opportunity to play there this year.
SB: What was your first regular season start (October 26, 2014) against the Ottawa Senators like?
SD: They told me I was going to play the night before. It was a long day leading up to the game. I was pretty stressed out. Pretty nervous before I got to the rink. And then once I showed up to the rink, I started treating it like another game and tried to block out what was actually happening. The guys on the team were awesome and made it fun for me. And they played great. Ottawa had seven shots in the first four minutes. I made all seven saves. Then it kind of slowed down, and I said, OK, this is for real. This is just another hockey game. From that point on, I just felt good. I tried to not think about the fact that this is my first NHL game, but try to enjoy another hockey game. I got into a groove and tried to stay in the moment for 60 minutes. When it was all said and done, it was a great night.
SB: It had to be surreal that Ottawa’s goalie that night, Craig Anderson, is also from the Chicago suburbs.
SD: For sure. I watched Anderson play many times. I skated with him when I was younger. He probably has no idea. We were at Orland Park Ice Arena one summer. He was out on the ice trying to get shots, and we skated together one day. I was amazed to be on the ice with him. It was probably six or seven years ago. I looked up to guys like that, and it was pretty cool to get to play against him.
SB: You were featured in the first episode of “Road to the Winter Classic.” Did you see it yet?
SD: Yeah. It was good. I always looked forward to that show every year on HBO and I’m happy that somebody picked it up this year. It was pretty surreal to see myself on there. Luckily, they didn’t catch anything embarrassing.
SB: In the scene during practice, when Coach Joel Quenneville skates up and says “you’re starting tomorrow,” you seemed pretty nonchalant. Did you know the cameras were on you?
SD: No, I didn’t. But you just try and play it cool. I was probably a little startled and excited, and I tried to get ready for the game.
SB: On the show, they showed you stopping Jaromir Jagr in the shootout. What do you remember about that play?
SD: [Laughs] Yeah, I’d say more he hit me with the puck than I stopped him. At the time, I tried not to think about who it was and what a world class player he is. It was just too overwhelming. I just thought, hey a guy is coming down to shoot at me. I just tried to stop him. And then afterwards, I was like, holy cow, that was Jaromir Jagr!
SB: I have to ask about the leg pads. You decided to make them look like the team socks. What brought on that unique choice?
SD: It’s kind of my style. I started doing it last year (with Milwaukee). But this year, with the Blackhawks’ colors, you can really match it up good. The first set of gear I had was all red with the white and black stripes. Now, I’m wearing all-white with black and red stripes.
SB: So you have home and road versions of your goalie pads?
SD: No, I retired the red gear. I’m just in the white gear now. The white gear, allegedly, makes you look bigger on the ice, so I switched over to mostly white, and it’s been all right. I really liked the way the red pads looked, but they looked a little small, so I switched over to the light stuff. I don’t know if it actually looks bigger, I’m not the one looking at it, but whatever works.
SB: Why do you have a phoenix on the back of your goalie mask?
SD: It symbolizes the journey I’ve been on. Just kind of rises from the rubble that I created for myself few years ago, and kind of symbolizes the comeback story.
SB: And the motto on the back of your mask, “Luctor et Emergo.”
SD: “Struggle and emerge.” It’s a slogan from Athol Murray College of Notre Dame. The Hounds. I went there for a year. That motto stuck with me, so I got it on my mask. And it ended up being very accurate for me.
SB: What advice do you have for young goalies?
SD: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Hockey is fun. It’s something you do because you love doing it. Just enjoy your time. Not everyone is lucky enough to play it for a career, so just enjoy playing it because it’s a great sport.
SB: Last question: Cubs or Sox?
SD: Cubs. My parents are from the north side. I’ve been a Cubs fan my whole life. I actually had a Cubs logo painted on my first [Blackhawks] helmet. I’m pretty excited about the work they’ve been doing lately, signing [starting pitcher Jon] Lester. So many moves. It’s going to be exciting.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■