Like a lot of people who turn their lives around, Scott Darling experienced a dramatic epiphany. To be sure, his decision the morning of July 1, 2011, came much more quickly than the process it took to get him where he was – which was in a bed in his uncle’s home in Boca Raton with a pounding head and a guilty conscience. Out of options and out of hockey, he was helping out at his uncle’s memorabilia company and, aside from doing arm curls with a beer bottle, hadn’t worked out in months.
Here’s how bad it was: his goaltending coach had fired him. The worst team in one of the lowest pro leagues in North America didn’t want him back. It was that morning Darling decided he had to stop drinking. More importantly, however, he had to somehow find a way to conquer a mental health issue that had plagued him since childhood. Darling had always suffered from social anxiety, and it was that disorder that caused him to medicate with his drug of choice, which was massive amounts of alcohol. “I wasn’t comfortable as a human being,” he said. “I didn’t think people liked me.”
People like Darling now. Hockey people like him a lot. But the most important thing is that Darling likes himself after getting the medical help he needed that summer more than three years ago. Since he made that decision and set his life in the right track, he’s gone from the Southern Professional League to the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. Darling’s is a story about second chances, but it’s also about one man’s ability to overcome his demons.
It wasn’t always that way. Darling, 25, came from an affluent supportive family from suburban Chicago, one that was secure enough in his character to send him to the Notre Dame hockey factory in Saskatchewan in the eighth grade. By the time he was 16, he had left home to play junior hockey. One night in Albany, agent Matt Keator saw a 6-foot-6 Darling stop 65 shots for the Capital District Selects, but there were some red flags. Darling seemed to enjoy partying a little too much, and that reputation followed him to the University of Maine. It was there Darling turned 21 and could suddenly buy beer at any corner store, and it was then where things fell off the rails. Before his sophomore season was over, Darling had violated the school’s code of conduct so many times that coach Tim Whitehead had no choice but to kick him off the team. “In his freshman year, we saw a guy who liked to have a little too much fun off the ice, but I’ve seen that with a lot of kids,” Whitehead said. “But it became clear in his sophomore year that it wasn’t just a typical kid going through growing pains. He was suffering from alcoholism.”
Darling still had no idea how badly he was sabotaging himself and basically said good riddance to Maine, thinking he would sign in 2010 with the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him in the sixth round three years before. But he went to camp out of shape and with a bad attitude and was cut loose, which started an odyssey that began in Las Vegas and ended in the SPHL. “He had hit rock bottom at Maine,” said Keator, who still represents Darling. “But to be honest, he went down even further after that.”
Darling played the 2010-11 season with the Louisiana IceGators of the SPHL and kept drinking more and caring less, all the while falling more dramatically off the radar. He had always felt uneasy around other people, and as desperately as he tried to fit in with teammates and friends, he always felt like an outsider. He never felt comfortable, with the exception of times when he was drinking. The more he drank, the more comfortable and socially accepted he felt. Like a lot of people who have substance abuse issues, Darling’s problem was reality and alcohol was his solution. “I didn’t want to deal with anything,” he said. “The easy answer was always, ‘I’m just going to go and have some beers.’ And that turned into a long, long night every day.”
Things continued to spiral. Darling had always trained and worked summers with Brian Daccord, the former goaltending coach for the Bruins who runs Stop It Goaltending in Boston. But after getting a call from a concerned parent about Darling’s behavior, Daccord told Darling he was no longer welcome at the school.
Daccord now speaks of Darling like a proud father. When Darling came back the next summer, Daccord hired him back at minimum wage and ordered him into the weight room to lose the 40 extra pounds he was carrying. By the next summer, Darling had worked his way to the ECHL and was still not drinking. Around that time, former Predators and current Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn called Daccord, asking him which player he would choose between two goalies he was considering for the fifth spot on the Predators depth chart. “I said, ‘To be quite honest with you, I’ve got a better choice on the ice and he’s in my four o’clock group today and his name is Scott Darling.”
Daccord filmed Darling’s workout that day and posted it on YouTube so Korn could see it. Intrigued, Korn started doing his due diligence on Darling, then met him for dinner one night before offering him a two-way contract between the ECHL and the American League. Pekka Rinne’s bacterial hip infection moved everyone up a notch in the organization and Darling found himself in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. That led to a two-way AHL-NHL deal this season with Chicago, which led to a call-up when the Blackhawks ran into injury problems, which led to a three-game stint in October (two wins and a 1-0 defeat). “From a talent standpoint, he’s got the gift of God,” Daccord said. “He’s got a 6-foot-6 form with 5-foot-10 agility. He’s a freak like Pekka Rinne is a freak.”
The thing is, Darling doesn’t feel like a freak anymore. He doesn’t self-identify as an alcoholic, nor does he take medication for his anxiety issues. He simply knows he can’t drink anymore. He has found inner strength and confidence that he never knew he possessed. The old Darling didn’t think he ever deserved an NHL career, a loving girlfriend or a sense of serenity in his life. But he has all those things now. And even if the three games he played are the only three he ever plays, Darling knows he has already triumphed. The anxiety still resurfaces occasionally, but not the compulsion to drink. At least it hasn’t for more than three years and, he hopes, never again. He can go to bars with teammates without feeling the compulsion to drink, something he attributes to finally being able to deal with life on life’s terms. “People don’t want to change until they have to,” Darling said. “I really dug myself a hole before I woke up. I just busted a 180 and put my foot on the gas.”
This feature originally appeared in the November 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.