The hardest save was himself

CHICAGO -- The lights are out. The roar is deafening. And in the final moments before the insanity begins, the most unlikely of Stanley Cup playoff heroes stands alone.

Scott Darling subtly rocks his body back and forth, transferring his nervous energy from one side of his body to the other. He tries to take it all in -- the 22,000 fans screaming during the national anthem, the American flag dancing in the rafters. But his mind is also somewhere else -- lost thinking about all the arenas that led to this jaw-droppingly improbable moment. It is a reminder of his darkest days, a gauge of how far he's come, proof that, somehow, he conquered his personal demons.

All those arenas are supposed to mean that Darling doesn't belong here. NHL goalies don't come from the Cajun Dome. They don't walk out of the University of Maine's Alfond Arena after being booted from the school for disciplinary reasons. And they certainly don't have to beg for jobs in the basement of professional hockey.

Yet, with the anthem now complete, there is Darling, pulling his Chicago-themed helmet over his head and throwing himself into the boards before Game 3 of the Blackhawks opening-round series against the Nashville Predators, his first career playoff start. Up in the stands, there's his mom, dad, sisters and grandparents, wiping away the tears. At home watching on television, there are the teammates and coaches from those arenas, the ones who were there for rock bottom, marveling at a moment they never thought possible.

"I'd like to think I'm someone who believes in his players," said Tim Whitehead, the former Maine coach. "But there is no way I ever could have seen this, considering where he was once at."

"The word I keep telling everyone is 'surreal,'" said Cindy Darling, Darling's mother. "Just surreal."

"Stories like this," said Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, "they just don't happen."

Somewhere in her suburban Chicago home, Cindy still has the paper her son wrote in second grade -- the one where he swore to someday play goalie for the Blackhawks. The boy grew up wanting to be just like his dad, a goalie in an area men's league. His father had no problem pointing him in the right direction. By four Darling had his own gear (he slept in it). By the eighth grade, he was safely ensconced in the Althol Murray College of Notre Dame, an equally hockey-crazed boarding school in Saskatchewan.

It is at Althol Murray where Darling first wrestled with his social anxiety disorder. He had always been hyper-aware of people in his orbit and fretted over what they thought of him. It caused a paralyzing fear he struggled to control. Away from the safety and familiarity of home it got worse.

"I felt different. I felt like an outsider. I would worry if people liked me or not," Darling said. "And when you're younger and somebody doesn't like you is when you wonder what's wrong with you. No kid likes to go through that, obviously, but it affected me even worse."

And then worse still. On a visit home over Columbus Day weekend, Cindy told Darling she had breast cancer. Still reeling from the anxiety of dealing with his fears away from home, he refused to go back to Saskatchewan.

"He was so upset," Cindy said. "I told him he was going back. Hockey was his dream. It was his job. And my job would be to get healthy."

And so Darling returned to Althol Murray. Cindy's cancer went into remission. Darling went to play junior hockey in Iowa and New York. By the time he was 18, he'd sprouted to 6-foot-6 but moved with the quickness and ease of someone eight inches shorter. And Darling knew how to handle the puck. "He had that secret sauce," said Brian Daccord, Darling's longtime goalie coach. "The stuff everybody wants." In the 2007 NHL draft, the Phoenix Coyotes selected Darling with their 6th pick. But at his annual summer camp, Daccord noticed that Darling lacked focus.

"He wasn't as serious as someone with his ability should have been at that point," Daccord said. "And he had an addictive personality. He would go nuts with things." Daccord remembers Darling once purchasing a video game and playing it for 36 hours straight.

"I told him point blank, 'You've got all the potential in the world but I see you going the wrong way," Daccord said. "You're going to be that guy shaking his head trying to find a job in hockey, as opposed to making $5 million a year in the NHL.'"

Darling listened. He said he understood. But nothing changed. Darling's social anxiety simply worsened. He didn't tell anyone. Why would he? He didn't think he was any different than anybody else. So he just tried to cope, be it through escaping into a video game or losing himself on the ice. Darling's life was spiraling out of control and he didn't even know it.

Here's the thing with goalies. They're the last line of defense. When everyone else has failed, it's on them to prevent the catastrophic from happening. Darling once had thrived under those circumstances. His hyper-awareness off the ice became a laser focus on the ice that often proved invaluable. There was no time to think about his problems. All he had to do was pull his jersey over his equipment and the pain went away. Hockey made him accountable. It made him necessary.

In 2008, Darling joined the University of Maine as part of a heralded freshman class that included Gustav Nyquist, currently of the Detroit Red Wings. Like many freshmen, Darling's play was inconsistent. A shutout one night. Four goals in the back of the net the next. Away from hockey, alcohol had become his most reliable coping mechanism. By the time he was 21, Darling says he would drink just about every night. And it wasn't just about drinking at parties and social events to help his nerves, but alone at home, too. Alcohol was how he kept himself sane.

"All this stuff had added up," Darling said. "The anxiety, not being able to sleep. Drinking took the edge off. It's a social lubricant, right? Helps you fit in? But that's just psycho self-medication. Next thing you know, you build a tolerance and you have to start drinking more and more and more."

The drinks he thought were helping were turning against him. They began to affect his performance on the ice. With each sip, he was destroying his second-grade dream. In practice and meetings, Whitehead noticed Darling was nervous and fidgety. Then he began to miss team meetings and then practices. Darling was suspended three times in 16 months for violating team rules.

After every mistake, Darling would say and do the right things: Yes, Coach. I'm sorry, Coach. I'll get it straightened out, Coach. But the self-destructive behavior just came back.

Whitehead helped Darling find counselors on and off campus. Cindy flew up from Chicago to help her son turn his life around. But how do you convince a 21-year-old in college he has a drinking problem when all his classmates are drinking to excess too?

By the spring of 2010, Whitehead was out of options. Darling's issues had become a distraction that was affecting the team. After a conference with his assistant coaches and captains, they all agreed. With only two games left in the regular season, Darling had to go.

"When you make a decision like that, you do so with a heavy heart," Whitehead said. "I was hopeful this would be a wake-up call, but this isn't the movies. I knew he had a fight in front of him. And I was worried he might not get better."

After the school year, Darling returned to Daccord's camp as a coach. He promised Daccord there would be no issues. But as the summer came to an end, Darling's roommates and others revealed the goalie had been out of control. Daccord told Darling he would not be welcome back the following summer.

"They said he was going hard. Really, really hard," Daccord said. "That's when he lost my trust. He was in a spiral. He was just going down, down, down. And he hadn't figured out how bad it was yet."

When he returned home to suburban Chicago, Cindy told Darling there would be no drinking in the house. So he left, fleeing to Las Vegas for training camp and hopefully a contract with the Coyotes. But, his body wrecked by his addiction, Darling was in no shape to compete for a job. The Coyotes cut him. Out of money, out of work, he called home. Cindy told him he needed to get help.

"He was a mess," Cindy said. "And he's in Vegas of all places. It's so hard to hear your son with no money, no options. Then he says he has some connections if I could just send him some money. I was like, 'What connections?'"

Word travels fast in professional sports. Everyone knew Darling was drinking himself out of hockey. The only team willing to give him a shot were the Louisiana IceGators of the Southern Professional Hockey League -- one of the lowest levels of pro hockey. But after one mediocre season plagued by drinking, even the Gators told Darling he would need to look elsewhere the following season.

"Not to take anything away from them, but I wasn't supposed to be there," Darling said. "Three years earlier, I signed with Phoenix thinking about when I am going to play for them. Now I was hoping I could play for the Louisiana IceGators? Something was wrong." His longtime agent, Matt Keator, pleaded for Darling to turn his life around.

"We had an emotional conversation and I just begged him," Keator said. "It wasn't even about saving a hockey career. It was about saving a life."

On the afternoon of July 1, 2011, Darling woke up at his uncle's home in Boca Raton, Florida, feeling the same way he had every other morning for the past year -- miserable. He was murderously hungover. His head was pounding. He couldn't think about food without feeling sick. He was 23. Unemployed. Out of shape. Alienating everyone close to him. He was at rock bottom -- nothing close to that letter he'd written in second grade.

"I had no promising anything," Darling said. "I didn't have money in my bank account. I didn't have a college degree to fall back on. I had no idea how I was going to find a team to play for the next year. There were no real bright spots in my future. If I would have told someone I was a professional athlete, there's no way they would have believed me."

After months of saying no to treatment, of ignoring the pleas of his mother, Whitehead, Daccord, Keator, he now knew he needed help.

"I just decided I had had enough," Darling said. "That was it. I was done."

Darling told his uncle he was ready to get sober. He called his mom and shared the news with her, too. Together, they made a plan. Darling began counseling designed to treat alcohol addiction. He attended AA meetings. He heard stories from people who'd had it far worse than him. People who had lost everything -- family, friends, career, any sense of self-worth.

"It was a wake-up call," he said. "Sometimes you need that to see how lucky you truly are."

For two months, Darling didn't worry about hockey or anything else and devoted himself to treating his problems. He learned healthy ways to manage his social anxiety disorder. He felt more comfortable in his skin. From the night he decided to get help, he started to sleep better. He opened up to his mom about his life.

"It was the kid I always knew was in there," Cindy said. "Not the one who shut down."

But when a month later, Cindy got the news that her breast cancer had returned, she immediately thought of her only son, flashing back to the scared teenage boy who refused to go back to Saskatchewan. She panicked at the thought of what might happen this time, fearing the absolute worst: a relapse.

"I remember I kept thinking, 'God, please do not let this put him over. Please," Cindy said.

Cindy called her son and gave him the news. She explained that life is not perfect. We all have our struggles. But she would be fine. Scott listened. He processed. And after a few seconds of silence he told his mom not to worry. They would win their fights together. This, he said, made him want to work even harder.

"That's when I knew he was going to be all right," Cindy said. In counseling, Darling's only goal was getting better. He didn't worry about staying in hockey shape. That fall, when he went to the SPHL's Florida Everblades, his new teammates noticed Darling's extra 40 pounds.

"Goalies aren't usually physical specimens," said Mike McKenzie, a former teammate of Darling's during his brief stint with the Everblades. "But some of the older guys looked at Scott and just laughed and poked fun of him."

But by December, as Darling bounced between three teams in the SPHL and ECHL, the excess weight disappeared. His on-ice results were mixed. But his off-ice performance was unblemished. His mom's cancer went into remission.

"I kept telling his coaches -- if there is any evidence, any slip-up, let me know," Keator said. "We will deal with it. But every single report was positive. And when you're down in the SPHL and everyone is drinking and cavorting and you don't touch a drop, that says a lot."

In the summer of 2012, Daccord welcomed a clean Darling back to his camp, where the goalie spoke to a group of 95 kids about his own mistakes. The next year Darling's play in the ECHL steadily improved. And when in the summer of 2013, the Nashville Predators called Daccord looking for an opinion on two goalies. He recommended Darling instead. Daccord filmed that day's workout and posted it on YouTube. That led to a two-way contract between the Predators' ECHL and AHL affiliates, where Darling would post a .933 save percentage in 26 starts in the AHL. He had nearly climbed his way to the top of the pro hockey ladder.

On a steamy afternoon last summer, Darling texted his mom and asked her to call him when she got home from work. Nothing urgent. When Cindy got back to him, Scott started going through the details of his job search for the upcoming season. He said something about Milwaukee offering this, another team offering that but there was one team in particular that he had decided he really wanted to play for. He joked that he was willing to accept any contract they offered. He asked his mom to guess the team. After a long day, she didn't have the energy to play along.

"Mom," Scott said. "I'm going to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks."

Cindy screamed into the phone so loud her two dogs began to howl. Turns out the Blackhawks had been looking for goaltending depth and had seen Darling up close in the AHL. Bowman and his staff felt confident enough in Darling's recovery to sign him to a one-year, two-way contract between the Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate in Rockford. Darling would be invited to Blackhawks training camp but would likely play most of the season in Rockford.

"To go through the things he went through, you know there is this laser-like focus to accomplish whatever he puts his mind to," Bowman said. "To me, to overcome everything he has, it is a positive."

Darling's size didn't hurt either. If Darling was 5-10, this story likely never happens. "He'd be in Europe right now," Keator said.

Instead, he was the newest member of the Chicago Blackhawks, his boyhood dream had come true. The official date on Darling's contract: July 1, 2014, three years to the day he decided to turn his life around.

"There it was, staring right at him in black and white," Cindy said. "If that's not validation of something you hoped you would someday be able to do, I don't know what is."

Darling began the season in Rockford, but injuries in Chicago led to his NHL debut in October. By February, he was a member of the Blackhawks for good with a two-year contract. In 14 regular-season starts, Darling would post a sparkling 1.94 goals against average, including a shutout of the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Entering the postseason, Darling was an afterthought. The Blackhawks already had Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford inked in as the starter. But after Crawford surrendered three first-period goals in Game 1, coach Joel Quenneville turned to the rookie, who made 42 unblemished saves, a playoff record, in a 4-3 come-from-behind win. Quenneville went back to Crawford in Game 2 and the veteran gave up six goals. So when the series returned to Chicago for Game 3, Darling was again the answer.

Anyone who has ever battled alcoholism or supported a friend or relative in their battle knows you never beat the disease. You manage it. Every day is a struggle -- every moment another reason to pick up a drink. Treatment is an individual process. What works for one person might not work for someone else. Scott Darling knows July 1, 2011, is a special day. But he doesn't count the number of days since his last drink or celebrate the anniversary. He's not uncomfortable thinking about his struggles, it's just that he prefers to leave it in the past. Sobriety is now an everyday part of his life. He hasn't had a drink in almost four years. He once worried that hanging out with with friends and teammates would be uncomfortable without a drink. Now, it's perfectly normal for Darling to go a bar and order a Red Bull.

He doesn't worry about drinking again -- even if the bottom feeder trolls on Twitter guarantee it. And in his free time he's taking online classes to earn his college degree.

"I don't want alcohol to run my life and I don't want avoiding alcohol to run my life," he said. "I wanted to move on. For me, it's just not a thing anymore. I flipped that switch. It's obviously there. It's obviously an option. But I just don't think about it anymore."

Each time Darling takes the ice, there are reminders of his path all around. On a mask filled with Chicago tributes like the Blues Brothers and the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, there is a Phoenix taking flight under the Latin phrase Luctor et Emergo. "That's sort of become my mantra," Darling says. "Struggle and emerge." Next to the Phoenix is a pink ribbon, a tribute to his mom, the two-time breast cancer survivor.

"He needed to rebuild his reputation with himself. And once he did that, there was no stopping him," Keator said. "The rest of this stuff is easy. This is the reward. And when you see him in net, that's why he looks like nothing is bothering him."

Just moments after Game 3, Darling stood in the corner of the Blackhawks dressing room, his black T-shirt still soaked from his day of work. Beads of sweat danced through the maze of his bushy brown beard. Darling had stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced in a 4-2 Chicago win. He had barely enough time to remove his pads when the cameras, spotlights and microphones swooped in. In 72 hours, he had gone from ignored to coveted.

Everyone wanted answers. When did you find out you were the starter? What has the last two days been like? Is your cell phone blowing up? How many friends and family were here? What are you going to do to celebrate? Did you realize you had this in you?

Five years ago, all that attention would have prompted a meltdown. Instead, Darling smiled. Politely said all the right things. And moved on. In 48 hours, he would again find himself in net, stopping 50 shots in a 3-2 triple-overtime thriller. And then in Game 6, with a chance to close out the series, disaster. A porous Chicago defense would allow 12 Nashville shots in the game's first 11 minutes. Three of them would get past Darling. Time for Crawford. As Darling skated from the net, the two shared an embrace. Darling headed back to the bench, his dream temporarily on pause. Crawford would face 13 shots the rest of the way and stop them all. Chicago would win 4-3 and advance to the Western Conference semifinals against the Minnesota Wild; Quenneville has already named Crawford the Game 1 starter.

Scott Darling might not find the ice again until next season. But Game 6 against Nashville is not the end of his story.

"He has a bright future in front of him," Bowman said. "There's no reason he can't have a long career in this league."

"He's proved he belongs," Daccord adds.

But even if Darling doesn't stand in net the rest of the postseason, the enormity of what he's accomplished hasn't been lost on anyone, especially his old Everblades teammate McKenzie: "It's just so impressive. I have a lot of respect for someone like that."

And, of course, it's not lost on Darling himself. "Now that I look back on the situation it's like, 'Holy crap,'" Darling said. "I don't want people to think I'm cocky, but it meant a lot for me to be able to step up and answer the bell. To go from searching for a job in the minor leagues to playing in your home city for your favorite team with the weight of the city on you and then performing? It just meant so much."

Just don't bring up the future to Darling. He's solely focused on the task in front of him. He has no other choice.

"Honestly, I'm just so happy to be here," he said. "At the end of the day, I just want to simplify it. I'm always going to do the best I can and whatever happens, happens.

"I just want to take it one day at a time."