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Goodbye, Chicago

Jun 13 2017
Photo by
Todd Rosenberg/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Todd Rosenberg/The Players' Tribune
Scott Darling
Carolina Hurricanes
Jun 13 2017

On July 1, 2011, I ended up in a room with tubes and wires hooked up all over my body. There was a little machine beeping that showed my vital signs. It was my first day of rehab. I had been drinking every single day for eight months. I had just been released by a team in the Southern Pro Hockey League. I had no money, no hope. My dreams were effectively over. All I wanted, at that point, was to be a normal person again.

I remember opening my eyes. The ceiling was blurry, and my body ached, and I thought, How the f*** did this happen?

On, July 1, 2014, exactly three years to the day after I went to rehab, I signed with the team I’d rooted for my entire life. My hometown team. The Chicago freaking Blackhawks.

I remember thinking to myself once again, How the f*** did this happen?

You should get used to that phrase, because it’s going to appear quite a bit in this story. For the past few months, I’ve been trying to figure out how to say goodbye to Chicago, and I just couldn’t find the words. In writing this story, I got choked up four or five different times. Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but that’s only if you don’t know how low of a place I clawed my way up from.

The thing about alcoholism is that you never think you have a problem. That’s how it gets you. Because it always starts small. For me, it started as a way to cope with social anxiety. Ever since I was a kid, I kind of lived inside my own brain. I was an introvert, and I was so worried about what everyone thought about me at all times. Like if I walked into a room of 100 people, I wanted to make sure all 100 people thought I was cool. I was obsessed with being the best version of myself at all times.

Courtesy Scott DarlingWhen I got to be 14, 15 years old, I was away from home playing junior hockey in different cities and meeting all these random people all the time. By the time I was 17, the whole routine became exhausting. It was like I was wearing a mask all day. So when I got home, I’d drink just to shut my brain off and feel normal. I looked at it like it was my medicine. It wasn’t like I was out going crazy and getting arrested. I was sitting at home watching movies and shutting off my brain.

After my senior year, I was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes and was on my way to play at the University of Maine. I’ll never forget the day my dad dropped me off at school at Maine. He was so proud of me that he gave me a big hug and handed me a check for $1,000. I mean, we were a blue-collar family from outside of Chicago. My dad was a goalie in a beer league. And now I was going to Maine. It was insane.

I was like, I did it. This is just the beginning. It’s all right in front of me.  

I spent the next two years messing all that up. I tried to be a D-I hockey player and a student and a party animal. It was a bad mix. I would be late for meetings and practices because I was hungover. I look back on it now and it seems totally absurd. It was mostly a six-pack-a-night thing. But I just couldn’t stop. I physically and emotionally couldn’t stop drinking. If I wasn’t drinking, I simply wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

Then at the end of my sophomore year, I had a meeting with my coaches. They told me that I wasn’t accountable, and that they needed a starting goalie that they could trust. I was off the team.

Brian Jenkins/Icon Sportswire

Being young and dumb, my attitude was: Well, screw it. I’ll just go to Coyotes camp and make the team.

Yeah … no. Dumb plan.

I remember my first day on the ice. I was so out of shape, and Shane Doan or someone came tearing down the wing and ripped one top-shelf, and I realized, Ahhhh, O.K. I see. I’m bad. I am a bad goalie right now.

I lasted maybe five days before Phoenix told me to beat it. I should have checked into rehab right then. Instead, I was on a plane the next day. Phoenix assigned me to their ECHL affiliate in literally the worst place on earth for me at that moment: beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada.

Seriously, I got sent to Vegas. I would laugh if the reality wasn’t so grim.

Our rink was inside The Orleans Hotel & Casino, right off the Strip.

And I lived at the hotel inside the casino.

Pretty much every day was the same routine: Practice inside the casino. Then drinking inside the casino. And then going to bed inside the casino.

It was so bizarre and depressing, in hindsight. I lasted a few weeks before I missed a practice, and the team said, “Pack your s***.”

So I packed my s***. Only … I had nowhere else to go. I was already at the bottom of the ladder. Well, the lowest rung except for something called the Southern Professional Hockey League. I had a friend who played for the Louisiana IceGators and I called him up and literally said, “Hey, uh … do you guys need a goalie?”

I went outside to the casino’s parking lot and called my mom. I remember pacing around that parking lot for 20 minutes while I begged her to lend me $200 so I could take a flight to Louisiana.

And I remember her saying, “Scott, please just come home. Please. We’ll get you some help.”

I get so emotional just thinking about it, because I can’t imagine being a parent in that situation. And I was so stubborn. I said, “No, mom. No. I’m fine. Please, just give me the $200. Please.”

She gave me the $200.

Bob Gathany/Huntsville Times

I will never forget getting off the plane in Baton Rouge and coming down the escalator. Before I got on the flight, my buddy from the team was like, “Don’t worry, there will be somebody there to pick you up.”

So I’m picturing a limo driver in a nice suit and everything.

I come down the escalator and there’s three old women with a paper sign that says, DARLING.

I kind of do a double take, and then one of them says, “Welcome to Louisiana, Darlin’!”

Before I can even wrap my head around what’s happening, they’re taking my bags and loading them into the back of this big pickup truck. Then we get in the truck for the 90-minute drive to the rink in Lafayette, and the whole way, they’re so worried about my well-being.

I mean, just picture your own grandma, and that’s what it was like.

“Honey, are you hungry?”

“Do you need to use the restroom?”

“Are you sure you’re not hungry. We got some pretzels here.”

They were absolutely amazing. The nicest people in the world. But I had just come from an NHL training camp, and now I was driving through the backwoods of Louisiana with three old ladies in a giant Chevy, going to play for a team called the IceGators. And that’s when a thought struck me for the first time: How the f*** did this happen?

I actually loved that Louisiana team, and I loved the town of Lafayette. But I had fallen so far, and instead of facing the reality, I drank to forget it. I was only making $200 a week, so my routine was pretty sad. After practice I would go to Subway and get a $5 foot-long, and then I’d go to the liquor store and get the cheapest bottle possible. And then I’d go home and drink on the couch. That was my whole day.

This went on every day for seven months. At that point, drinking wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t enjoying it, if that makes sense. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, like an exciting Friday night with the boys. It was a physical necessity. My life revolved around it.

Rock bottom was the one and only night my father came down to see me play. We were in Columbus, Georgia. I played well. We won. I met him out in the parking lot after the game. I came out smiling, feeling good. But my dad just looked at me with so much sadness in his eyes, and he said, “You shouldn’t be here, Scott. You shouldn’t be here.”

I get choked up every time I think about it.

That summer, the IceGators told me that they didn’t want me back the next season. I had no job. No college degree. My body was falling apart. The dream was over. One morning, I woke up hungover and I finally just said, “F*** this. I’m done. Get me to rehab.”  

I wish I could tell you that it was some dramatic moment that had made the lightbulb go off, but I was just sick and tired — so, so, so tired.

My uncle dropped me off at rehab that afternoon. I swear to God, 30 minutes after I got there, when they were processing my paperwork, I ran into another hockey player in the hallway.

We just looked at each other and laughed like, Are you kidding me?

It was awesome, we ended up going through the whole process together. I was there for two months. No phone. No connection to the outside world. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I won’t go into the details, because privacy is an essential part of the process, but I’ll say this: The experience was incredibly humbling. Just hearing stories of what other people had gone through in their lives was a huge wake-up call for me. Realizing that I still had a family that loved me and friends who cared about me, plus a very specific skill set … I mean, 99% of the people I met in there would’ve done anything for those things. It was a complete release to finally talk about my fears, and my anxiety, and why I drank. I had spent my whole life worried about what other people thought of me, and then all of a sudden I was just … free.

Unfortunately when I got out of there I was so fat. Like noticeably fat. I hadn’t worked out once while I was in there, and the food was amazing. When I came out I was pushing 250 pounds.

Mississippi River Kings

Thankfully, the Mississippi RiverKings had offered me a contract while I was still in rehab. They literally faxed the papers to my therapist. They didn’t know how out of shape I was. I mean, I probably looked ridiculous. But it was a team. It was a small step forward, and I was sober.

My teammates in Mississippi started calling me “Designated Darls.” I’d still go out with them, but I’d just drink Red Bull all night until they were ready to go home. I was like the world’s most revved up Uber driver. That season, I learned to be comfortable in my own skin, and it was awesome.

I went home that summer and lived in my mom’s basement. I was broke, so she got me a job. She is a director of technology at a school district outside Chicago, and she got me hired as an assistant custodian for the school district.

The first day, I show up and the head of the crew is this legendary character named Bill Brown. Huge Blackhawks fan. So he introduces me to all the guys, like, “O.K. fellas, this is Scott. He’s going to be working here for the summer, and he’s a professional goalie.”

And the guys are like, “He’s a what?”

Bill says, “He’s a goalie.”

“Goalie for what?

“A hockey team.”

“Then what is he doing here?”

We spent the whole summer doing demolition work. I was the rookie on the crew, so my job was to clean up all bricks and wood and dirty piping and haul it out to the dumpster. Every morning before work, I’d wake up early and go out to this pond behind my mom’s house. To this day, I hate running. But I needed to get in shape, and I didn’t have enough money for a gym membership, so I’d be out there ripping around the pond listening to Pearl Jam and telling myself that things were going to get better if I just kept working hard.

Over the next two years I felt like I played for every single team in minor league hockey. My HockeyDB.com page looks ridiculous, and it’s actually missing some teams. Officially, it lists nine teams, but unofficially, it’s at least 13 or 14. Teams would call me up in emergency situations for a weekend, but sometimes I wouldn’t actually play.  

It was a surreal existence. I mean, I played for the Wheeling Nailers and lived in a log cabin in the woods of West Virginia with three other dudes. My agent (and close friend), Matt Keator, deserves some kind of humanitarian award. He represents guys like Zdeno Chara and yet he would happily take calls from me being like, “Hey man, I heard the Reading Royals might need a goalie for the weekend? Can you call them?”

I woke up so many times in random hotel rooms having no idea what town I was in. For someone who had spent his life struggling with social anxiety, this was a pretty hilarious situation. I’d get called up by some team for a weekend, hop on a plane and then have to walk into a locker room with 30 guys I had never met before.

I’ll tell an embarrassing story, because embarrassing stories are the best kind.

Frank Jansky/ZUMAPRESS.com

One time, the Hamilton Bulldogs called me up in some emergency situation. They were Montreal’s AHL team, and I was still in the SPHL at the time, so it was a big deal. I packed my bag, hopped on a plane and bang — I was immediately taken to the coach’s room to watch film with all the guys.

I was standing in the back of the room, and I had been there approximately eight minutes, and I was just so filled with anxiety, and my head was spinning and….

I legit passed out. As in fainted.

Just totally collapsed.

I woke up to 20 strangers hovering over me, splashing water on my face, like in the movies. To this day, I still bump into trainers or guys who were on that team, and they’re like, “Man, it’s so good to see you on your feet, bud.”

I was on so many teams that I started collecting warmup hoodies everywhere I went, because usually they wouldn’t even let me keep my jersey. Some of the logos are just incredible. I have quite the collection.

Over those two years, I had so many insane breaks that kept me moving up and down and back up the ladder, from the ECHL to the AHL. I mean, for people who don’t understand how it works — before me, nobody had ever made it to the NHL from the SPHL. It’s hard enough to even make an ECHL team from there. To then move up to the AHL is a small miracle.

At the start of the 2013–14 season, I was with the Predators’ ECHL team in Cincinnati. Then the craziest thing happened. Pekka Rinne ended up contracting an E. coli infection that kept him out for four months. So every goalie in the organization moved up one rung on the ladder. I went from Cincinnati to the AHL team in Milwaukee, and I played really well. When the season ended, I was really hoping that the Predators were going to offer me an NHL contract.

Unfortunately, they only offered me an AHL deal. I was pretty bummed. I mean, I had a .933 save percentage in Milwaukee. At that point, I was kind of thinking, Will an organization ever fully trust me again?

That summer, I was watching the Blackhawks play the Kings in the playoffs, and I semi-jokingly texted one of their scouts, who I had worked with at Brian Daccord’s goalie camp. I texted something like, “Hey, I know you’re probably busy right now (haha) but if you guys are looking for some depth next year, I’m gonna be free.”

Did it work? Who knows.

All I know is that on July 1, 2014, on the three-year anniversary of my sobriety, my agent had a deal in place with the Blackhawks. I figured I’d be a depth goalie in the AHL. Never in a million years did I think I’d actually be playing for them in the playoffs that season.

I called my mom and she just screamed.

I called my dad and he couldn’t physically speak.

Then, on October 26, I got called up to play my first game for the Blackhawks at the United Center.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher asked the class to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to play goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks.” My grandparents still have the sheet of paper at their house.

I remember I was standing in the crease during the national anthem, and I was looking up into the rafters at all the banners, and I had this crazy flashback to every team I ever played for — to standing in the crease and looking up into the rafters of every tiny barn that I played in along the way. Except this time, I was doing it at the United Center, where I had come as a kid with my dad.

Bill Smith/NHL/Getty Images

 

I don’t remember anything about the game. I blacked out on adrenaline. I just know that I played well and we won 2–1. After the game, I was taking my gear off, and I thought, Alright, that’s it. If you never play again, you can die happy.

I played 13 more regular season games as the backup. When we got to the playoffs, our first round opponent was … who else?

The Nashville Predators.  

I didn’t think I’d get a chance to play. Then in Game 1 they scored 3 goals in the first period, and I was sitting there kind of peering down the end of the bench at Coach Q, just like out of the corner of my eye.

Is he looking at me?

Nope.

We went into the locker room at intermission and Q marched right in and the first thing he said was, “Darls, you’re going in.”

I was going to play a playoff game for the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena against the Nashville Predators.

Cool.

And then I literally puked.

I went straight into the bathroom and threw up right in the toilet.

And then I came back out and I looked around the room at Toews and Kaner and Seabs and Duncs and I was ready to roll.

Just seeing the looks on those guys’ faces, down 3–0, said it all. There was no fear. The core players on that team were some of the most gifted athletes I’ve ever seen, both physically and mentally. Their mentality when they got down was, How long is it going to take for us to come back?

I remember skating out on the ice. The rest is a blur.

We fought back and forced overtime. Then it went to double overtime. Then Duncan Keith scored the game-winner, and the Bridgestone Arena just went quiet, and I just felt a tremendous sense of relief.

I’ll tell my kids about it someday.

John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images

That series was surreal, because I knew half the guys on the Predators from playing in Milwaukee. Filip Forsberg was my roommate. We closed them out in six games. All of a sudden, I’m in the handshake line with these guys, and they’re telling me, “Hell of a job, Darls.”

When Corey Crawford took the net back for the rest of the way, it was funny because I was a million times more stressed sitting on the bench than I had been in net. I swear the Anaheim series in the Western Conference finals took six years off my life. I could have used one of those fidget spinners. I was losing it.

When we got to the Stanley Cup finals I was so in it that I never had a chance to step back and realize what was happening. I remember the exact moment that it hit me. It was with four minutes left in Game 6. Kaner scored to make it 2–0, and I had this realization that we were going to win the Stanley Cup.

I was going to win the Stanley Cup. With the Chicago Blackhawks. I remember thinking, Oh my God. What do I do with my hands?

When the clock hit zero, it was chaos. I was standing at the very back of the line waiting for the Cup, and somebody handed it to me, and I did something that I never do.

I screamed in public.

I let out a huge, awkward roar.

Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty Images

Then they had the families come out, and I saw my dad’s face, and it was just priceless. Less than four years before that moment, we were standing in a parking lot in Georgia, and he told me, “You shouldn’t be here, Scott.”

Now we’re holding the Stanley Cup?

What?

My agent Matt came out, and holding the Cup with him was my way of saying thank you for not giving up on me, and for picking up a million phone calls the last four years.

That summer, I went to visit all the guys on the old demolition crew. When I walked into my old boss Bill Brown’s office, he had all this Scott Darling memorabilia and pictures of us with the Cup.

We just kind of looked at each other and laughed. He still insists that he taught me everything I know. And he always asks, “When are you coming back to work?”

I used to haul bricks and sewage pipes out of the buildings, now kids were running up to me asking for my autograph. Insane. Totally insane.

My three years with the Chicago Blackhawks were better than my wildest dreams. When I was traded to Carolina in April, I wanted to say a proper goodbye, but it seemed so overwhelming.

For most of my life, I felt like I was alone. That’s part of the reason that I drank. I never felt connected to anyone, and I was always worried about what everyone thought of me. I can honestly say that every single guy in that Blackhawks room was a great friend to me, and that’s not bulls***. I truly mean that. 

Todd Rosenberg/The Players' Tribune

It was amazing to represent my city and play for my favorite team. Top to bottom that organization is filled with amazing people. They all treated me like I belonged. The front office was great to me, my coaches were amazing to me and treated me like an NHL goalie. That may sound funny coming from me, but it took me a while to stop thinking that everyone looked at me like a random SPHL guy. I made so many great friends on the team, the p.r. team, the training staff, the equipment guys … I could go on for days.

In 40 years, I’ll tell my kids about Game 1 against Nashville. I’ll tell them what it felt like to lift the Cup. But more importantly, I’ll tell them about Johnny and Brent and Duncan and Crow and Kaner and Shaw and on and on. I’ll tell them about all the time we spent in hotels, and on buses and airplanes, just talking about hockey, and about life — and if it was Johnny, probably about life on Mars.

It all means more to me than anyone will ever understand.

I love you, guys.

I love you, Chicago.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Sincerely,

Scott

Scott Darling
Carolina Hurricanes