Every now and then, a player comes along who becomes the “face” of a franchise.
The time is now and the place is the Chicago Wolves for team captain Darren Haydar.
“He’s absolutely the face of the franchise,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “He might be the face of the AHL, actually, when you look at where he is in all-time scoring, the active scoring leaders list. Every week, he seems to be moving up another notch. He’s the model of consistency in our league.
“He is what the Wolves are all about. He doesn’t like to lose. He wants to win. He’s a great person and very caring and giving back to the community. That’s what we want. That’s what our organization is about. We talked about the face of the franchise. He epitomizes all those.”
Haydar, a 33-year-old right wing, is in his second go-round with the American Hockey League’s Wolves. He won a Calder Cup championship with the Wolves in 2008 before leaving for what he thought was a real shot at the NHL.
That shot never came, and after seasons in Grand Rapids and Lake Erie, Haydar came “home” to the Wolves in 2010.
Entering this weekend’s games at Hamilton and Toronto, Haydar has 12 goals and 18 assists this year. For his Wolves career, he has 120 goals and 221 assists, putting his points total 1 short of tying Jason Krog for third in franchise history.
For a team completing its 19th year of play, it’s probably safe to say that only one other player has earned the tag of “face of the franchise,” and that was high-scoring winger Steve Maltais, who starred in the early days of the Wolves.
“I left here for an opportunity in the NHL; that’s the only reason I left,” Haydar said. “I think I was misled in terms of the reasons why I left, in terms of the organizations I signed with. I was told I was going to be given an opportunity, and that didn’t happen.
“Even in those years, when I happened to be in the American League, if there was a team I wanted to play for, it was definitely the Chicago Wolves. It starts from the ownership: Don Levin. He’s been great to myself and my wife and our families. It’s because of people like him, and it’s transcended down through the coaching staff, when (head coach) John Anderson was here.
“The Chicago Wolves treat their players, from my perspective, as family. That’s something that I knew if I was in the American Hockey League, it was a place I wanted to come back to and play.”
Haydar knows he’s been called the “Crash Davis,” of hockey: the journeyman who gets the occasional cup of coffee in the big leagues only to spend most of his time toiling in the minors.
He also has heard all about what he can’t do: At 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds, he’s too small; he doesn’t skate with enough power.
“I still get questions as to why Steve Maltais wasn’t a full-time (NHL) player,” Young said. “I get the questions about Haydar. It’s the same thing. It’s easy to pick on deficiencies and not what they’re really good at. Guys like Darren Haydar make plays when you don’t think they’re going to be made.”
For the record, Haydar has logged 23 games in the NHL, two with Nashville, 20 with Atlanta (the former parent club of the Wolves) and one with Colorado. He has 1 goal and 7 assists.
“Everyone says I’m either too small or I don’t skate well enough,” said Haydar, a collegiate star at the University of New Hampshire and a 1999 draft pick of Nashville. “But it’s not football. We don’t go through the combines. It’s not the fastest guy in hockey. There’s a lot of thinking.
“There are more variables in hockey than there are in football because the quarterback is the one making decisions. In hockey, everyone has to make decisions.
“I’ve accepted my window. I’m 33. I’m not 22 anymore. It seems to be the trend, going younger, (and) I’m definitely OK with that. I love it when my teammates get called up. I’m just as happy as they are, especially when it’s someone for the first time. It’s always good to see them with the excitement they have on their face because I remember my first time going up, the excitement that I had.”
So much for the negatives. Haydar and the Wolves would rather focus on what he can do.
“I think the game extremely well,” he said, not immodestly. “That’s my biggest asset. I see the ice very well. I think I’m a good passer, and I can finish. Over the course of my career, I’ve scored big-time goals at key moments in games, and I think that’s something I’ve thrived on my whole career. That’s what’s kept me around, being able to score those big goals to help our team either win the championship or give ourselves a chance to win, especially come playoff time.”
His teammates see it, too.
“What I love about him is, because he’s such a good passer, he just tells me to fly, and he’ll find me,” said linemate Bill Sweatt.
For first-year Wolves coach Scott Arniel, having a captain like Haydar helped when he walked through the door the first time.
“Anytime you go to any team and you can have some guys who have been here before that have played in the league before and know what it takes to play 76 games in this league, they’re invaluable for coaches,” Arniel said. “Darren’s a guy that’s an elite player who has record numbers, who has been a great player in Chicago over the years, won a championship in Milwaukee. He’s a guy that his teammates respect, his coaching staff respects.”
Haydar also has had to be strong at home. His wife, Sara, has been battling throat cancer.
“It’s been four years,” Haydar said. “She’s clear but she’s not clear. She’s got scar tissue that keeps building up in her airway.
“Just how strong she is lets me know I get to play the game of hockey for a living and enjoy it while I can. It’s not going to be here forever. I don’t take anything in life for granted anymore because it can be ripped from you at the drop of a hat, just like her life was. She wanted to become a nurse. She had to drop out of school because she was going through treatments.
“She is extremely strong and made me stronger because of what she’s been through and how strong she’s had to be. She’s definitely helped me along the way.”
As for his future, Haydar said he’d like to play for a few more years — perhaps that NHL dream will still be fulfilled one day — and after that, he’d like to coach. Either way, there is no time for regrets.
“I’m definitely at peace with that,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win a championship here with Chicago and to win a championship with Milwaukee earlier on in my career. I’ve had a lot of accolades in terms of individual success within the league. Obviously, I’m disappointed I haven’t really gotten my NHL opportunity or a chance like that. But I’m definitely at peace. I get to play hockey for a living. I enjoy it. I love coming to the rink and being with the guys every day.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.