Darren Haydar remembers a few things from his rookie season in the AHL. He remembers that he was able to contribute right away. He remembers that the veterans on that Milwaukee Admirals roster embraced the young guns. And he remembers that no one had actually expected him to be there.
“I felt like even Nashville and Milwaukee overlooked me before the season even started. I don't think they had me pencilled in as playing in Milwaukee. I think they had me scheduled to be in the East Coast League,” Haydar said. “To be able to come out that year and have an immediate impact on the league is definitely something that I'm proud of and worked every day to achieve.”
All these years later, that 2002-03 season remains an unforgettable one for Haydar. A University of New Hampshire product and ninth-round, 248th-overall pick of the Predators back when the draft had a ninth round, Haydar took the AHL by surprising storm that season, netting 29 goals and 75 points in 75 games on an Admirals squad that was one season away from capturing the Calder Cup. At season’s end, Haydar was named the AHL Rookie of the Year, which he said is the one piece of individual recognition he received during his playing days that still stands out. It's also one small part of what has earned Haydar, 39, acknowledgement as one of the league's all-time greats.
Announced as part of the AHL Hall of Fame Class of 2020 on Thursday – an honor he shares and will receive alongside longtime coach and player Robbie Ftorek, former player Denis Hamel and the late Fred Thurier ahead of the AHL All-Star Classic in January 2020 – Haydar’s legacy is one of the more intriguing in AHL lore. Of course, he has the numbers to support his case for Hall of Fame candidacy. Truth be told, his resume is unassailable. He finished his 11-season, 788-game career in the AHL as the 14th-highest scorer in league history with 788 points, his 292 goals the 24th-most all-time and his 496 assists the 10th-most in league history. He captured two Calder Cups, went to three all-star games, twice led the post-season in goals and points and led the AHL in scoring and was named the circuit’s MVP in 2006-07.
But what’s fascinating about Haydar’s career – and equally as confounding – is how one of the most prolific players in AHL history never found his way to consistent NHL work.
To be sure, Haydar had his cups of coffee. During that standout rookie AHL campaign, he earned a two-game call-up to the Predators. Across 2006-07 and 2007-08, he skated in 20 games with the Atlanta Thrashers. In 2009-10, he received a late-career one-game shot with the Colorado Avalanche. But that chance, which consisted of less than six minutes of ice time for the then-30-year-old minor-league journeyman, was his last in the NHL. And it doesn’t take a super scout to understand why Haydar was never a real opportunity to make his mark in the show.
When it came to Hayday’s on-ice ability, the puck skills were indisputable, his vision was exceptional and his hockey sense was unquestionable. But what he lacked during the early days of his career, when the NHL was as much about size as it was skill, was the frame to match. At 5-foot-9, he didn’t fit the big-league model. Simply put, his professional career came an era too early. “Back then, if you were under six-foot, you were almost eliminated and had to prove beyond measure that you belonged,” Haydar said.
The frustrating thing for Haydar, and for those who were aware of what he could contribute, was that it was evident he could hang. In the 23 games he did play in the NHL, across which he skated roughly 240 minutes, he scored one goal and eight points. In today’s game, that would make him a quality fourth-line contributor. When Haydar was in his prime prove-himself years in the early- and mid-aughts, however, roster construction didn’t leave many places for a diminutive winger in a depth role. Instead, those third- and fourth-line spots were reserved for crash-and-bang forwards or big-bodied pugilists. Haydar doesn’t blame anyone for that. It’s simply the way it was. But he does feel like deserved a better chance to show his game could translate to the next level.
“Even when I played in the NHL, I felt like I was smarter than the majority of the players on the team,” Haydar said. “I just needed that opportunity, the coach to really believe in what I brought to the table. Unfortunately, I think statistically I did OK, I just didn't have a coach that truly believed in everything I did.”
Following his shot with the Avalanche, Haydar’s journey took him back to the Chicago Wolves, with whom he had spent two of his best campaigns, but by the end of the 2012-13 season, he decided it was time to move on. He departed the AHL for the German League, where he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, and later made stops in the KHL and Austrian League before returning to Germany for a final campaign. During his time overseas, Haydar landed a spot with Team Canada at the 2014 Spengler Cup, which remains a career highlight for the soon-to-be 40-year-old.
Today, despite a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in the late stages of his career, Haydar remains in good health and continues to play, most recently in the senior men’s Allan Cup. He also runs 20/20 Elite Hockey, a skill-development camp for youth players, and has made the transition to the real estate business. But as he reflects on his career following the AHL Hall of Fame selection, does he harbor any regrets about the way his time in professional hockey played out or regret that the mentality surrounding size changed just a little too late?
“I wish it was swayed a little more on the skill side 15 years ago or 10 years ago,” Haydar said. “But we are where we are, and I like the standing of not only the NHL but where the AHL is today.”
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