Prior to this season, 25-year old goaltender Scott Darling had only ever played one game at the American Hockey League (AHL) level. During a spell of injuries within the Nashville Predators system he has had the opportunity to play with the Milwaukee Admirals. Ever since his call up from the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), on October 24, 2013, he has quickly taken this opportunity at the AHL level and polished up his resume in the process.
“It’s been going well,” said Scott Darling. “This year it’s been crazy with injuries, goalie movements, Nashville, and everything. So, every time I get to play I’m just happy to play. That’s really all I can do. Trying to make the most of my time in the net.”
Darling was born in raised not too far from where he currently plays. He is from Lemont, Illinois where his family and friends are only a two-hour drive away from Milwaukee. According to him, this is the closest he has been to home in ten-years since moving out in the seventh grade to pursue a dream of playing professional hockey.
“I could go home any day that I want,” smiled Darling. “My mom, my grandparents, aunts, and cousins they come to almost all home games. And the games in Chicago, too. It has been a treat for my whole family.”
His career between the pipes started at the age of 5-years old while playing youth hockey. The team he played for would trade off who played in net and cycled through the skaters in every game. This meant a new goalie would play in every game. After performing far better in net than as a forward – the coaches kept him in goal. That would turn out to be a very natural fit for Scott Darling considering the role that his father played for his love of the sport.
“My dad was a hockey player,” said Darling. “He played goalie. So when I was a little kid I watched him play men’s league. He played college, club, men’s league my whole childhood. That’s how I got started.”
The road began with time between the North Iowa Outlaws of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and the Capital District Selects of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL). It was after this time when he had done enough to catch the attention of the National Hockey League (NHL) and was drafted in the sixth round of the 2007 NHL Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. The next step was a productive stint with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League (USHL) where he played more games in a season, 42, than he ever did previously.
Darling was then able to play for the highly successful University of Maine hockey program. In two-seasons he played 54 games, won 25 games, had a 2.93 GAA, and a 0.895 SV%. The reason why he didn’t stick around their program for the full four-years comes with a negative reputation the he was slowly building for himself.
“I was a bit of a wild child when I was in my late teens and early-twenties,” Darling said. “That’s kind of what caused me to leave Maine after my sophomore year instead of going for four-years. Then Phoenix sent me to their [ECHL] team which, at the time, was in Las Vegas. Which, for a guy who likes to have fun, Las Vegas is not a good place to be.”
It was during this spell, in his professional playing career, that he had played for six different teams, in four different leagues, over three-seasons.
“I used to like to go out to bars, liked to party, and do everything a normal 21-year old likes do do,” cited Darling. “It wasn’t good for my hockey career. I got in trouble a few times. When you get labeled as a wild card people don’t want to pay you money to be a hockey player. You’re a liability. So that definitely slowed down the start of my career.”
Then came the summer of 2013 where he was given the opportunity to work with Nashville Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn. Darling was working on his own training program in Boston prior to the Predators development camp. With a month between his own training regimen and the start of camp, Korn offered Darling an opportunity to join him in Nashville ahead of the camp where he would be able to work with him. In that time he was able to train with the likes of Carter Hutton – as well as current Admiral teammate Vinny Saponari – and Matt Hendricks and Kevin Klein. Never having had the luxury of a full-time goaltending coach during the course of the season, this was the beginning of a new era for Darling having the likes of Mitch Korn and Ben Vanderklok around to monitor and assist him on a daily basis.
“[Ben Vanderklok] is great,” smiled Darling. “I really like to talk goaltending so it is nice to have someone to talk goaltending with. He is very knowledgeable. I know he follows the game a lot just like I do. I’m a big goalie geek. I could tell you every goalie for every team in every league and how they’re doing and where they played. And he is kind of the same way.”
The next big day for Darling came in the form of a pre-season contest for the Predators against the Florida Panthers. The game finished 6-3 in the Panthers favor but the larger picture there was that he had accomplished, even if it were an exhibition game, a taste of life in the NHL for the first time in his career.
His next stop within the Predators organization was a brief one. He was with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL for one game, an 18-save 4-2 win over his former Wheeling Nailers, before getting called up to the Milwaukee Admirals five days later. With the injuries within Nashville’s organization causing a shuffle around from top to bottom – the chance for Darling to play in extended amounts at the AHL level for the first time was there. It was a chance he took and took instantly.
In his second start with the Admirals he recorded a 32-save shutout over the Iowa Wild. In the month of December he took the bulk of games in net and continued to earn himself more playing time in net. He took home CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors for the final week of December but, one-better, took home CCM/AHL Goalie of the Month honors for his efforts: 8 games played, 6 wins, 1.12 GAA, 0.964 SV%, and 2 shutouts.
“He has come a long way,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “We signed him as our fifth guy to play in Cincinnati – which is where he started. Obviously, he caught a break with injuries and made the best of it. He was great for us early. Gave us opportunities to win. Won the Player of the Month. He just did everything that we’ve asked of him. He is very professional. Has a ton of skill. Competes in practice. Competes in games. And he has given us an opportunity to win. Not a lot of times when your top goalie, or top two goalies on your hockey team, gets hurt do you have a guy to fill in as good as he has. He’s been very impressive to us.”
Sadly following his AHL award winning month of December, Darling picked up a lower-body injury in January that sidelined him for a month. In that time he stayed close to the team, worked out, and continued his development at the AHL level. After three games with the Cyclones of the ECHL, where he won two of his three starts, he was brought back up to the Admirals where he was instantly plugged back into the net. In the weekend back with the team he made two starts, three appearances in net, didn’t get a win, registered a 1.67 GAA, and 0.938 SV%. He also earned a 29-save shutout in a shootout defeat against the Grand Rapids Griffins where he was on equal footing with Petr Mrazek the entire game.
One wonders, with him clearly trending upward at the age of 25-years old, what the future has in store for Scott Darling?
“I’ve been playing pro for four-years this is, I think, my fourteenth pro team,” joked Darling. “So it’s like I expect everything to happen. Plan for the best. Prepare for the worst. And just see what happens.”
It’s clear that in his first season getting guidance from the likes of Korn and Vanderklok that Darling has made major strides this season. He has never competed at this level of professional hockey for this long before in his career. Rather than be overwhelmed by the pace or competition factor that the AHL could present – he has stepped up from the word go and continues to be one of the better surprises to the Admirals during the 2013-14 season. Only time will tell where his story takes him next – and if he’ll be the man in net this season as the Admirals look to enter the playoffs for a twelfth consecutive season.
Full Interview (2/25/14), myself and Scott Darling:
What have you thought of Scott Darling this season? What has impressed you the most?