Darling getting leave of absence is reminder of human element of hockey

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The Carolina Hurricanes granted Scott Darling a leave of absence without a stated timeline for his return. Darling, 30, had been playing for the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell confirmed as much to Chip Alexander of The News & Observer, going into detail on why Darling decided to take that personal leave.

“Since he’s been down there he’s had some good games and some bad games,” Waddell said. “He had a tough game the other night and his agent called me and said he would like to take a personal leave of absence and would we allow that to get his mind back together. That night he got rocked for about five (goals) and before he had a shutout (in regulation) before we lost in overtime 1-0. So we gave him the leave of absence.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in numbers when you’re talking about hockey, whether you’re talking about losing streaks, records, cap hits, or who won head-to-head in fantasy that week. It’s almost inevitable, then, to forget that human beings are involved.

[PHT Q&A with Darling from January 2018]

Darling is in a situation that makes him especially vulnerable to becoming discouraged by numbers.

There’s no denying that he’s struggled since signing a four-year, $16.6 million contract (through 2020-21) with the Hurricanes. After putting together a sterling run as a Blackhawks backup (.923 save percentage in 75 games over three seasons), Darling’s seen his play plummet. His save percentage has been at an unsightly .887 save percentage in 51 games with Carolina, and things have been just as rocky in the AHL.

The big goalie is far from the only netminder who hasn’t been able to get it done for the Hurricanes, but he undoubtedly must have felt like he had been letting his team down, and not living up to his contract.

And don’t forget, this is a goalie who had to scratch and claw for opportunities.

Darling was barely drafted (a sixth-rounder, 153rd overall, by the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2007), climbing from the SPHL to the ECHL to the AHL and finally the NHL. It must be a real shock to Darling’s system to hit this snag, and perhaps it doesn’t help that the sport has become so fast and skilled for a towering goalie.

There’s also the nature of the goaltending position.

It’s bad enough for Milan Lucic, a winger whose struggles and beefy contract make it tough to slip under the radar. But when a goalie is fighting it, there’s really no hiding.

With that in mind, allowing Darling to take a leave of absence doesn’t just need to inspire inevitable cynicism about him frankly not playing that well. Taking a break from beating himself up could really help Darling rebound, even if he’s never the goalie the Hurricanes rolled the dice with.

Waddell backed up such thoughts, merely saying that the Hurricanes will check in with Darling in about a week, and that the goalie will receive “100-percent support” from the team.

“We all know he’s had ups and downs in his career, and we’ll be supportive,” Waddell said. “He’s still under contract for two more years and we’ve got to see if we can get this thing back together.”

Darling’s struggled before, as he discussed in detail when saying goodbye to the Blackhawks in The Players’ Tribune back in June 2017.

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.

Darling was able to get his career back on track despite those struggles, so perhaps he can do it again? Most importantly, here’s hoping that Darling finds peace of mind, because there are more important things than how many pucks he can stop.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.