'Oh, God, this is like a real thing': Ex-Blackhawk Darling on playing in Austria during pandemic
That's how far away Scott Darling was living from the Italian border as the coronavirus began spreading like wildfire overseas.
The former Blackhawks goaltender had accepted an offer to play for Innsbruck HC in the Austrian Hockey League in November and was doing everything he could to help the team advance in the postseason.
But little by little things were changing.
Fewer fans were showing up to games. Traditional postgame handshakes were eliminated. A teammate took serious heat for going into Italy on an off day. And, finally, a hotel got quarantined.
"When part of downtown Innsbruck got quarantined, we were like, 'Oh, God, this is like a real thing,' " said Darling, who made it back safely to Chicago in early March.
The Lemont native has had a rough time since being traded to Carolina in 2017, and he was kind enough to talk about those struggles -- as well as how he ended up in Austria with his fiancee and 170-pound Great Dane -- during an interview last week.
'Didn't do my job'
To understand how Darling went from being a highly sought-after NHL goalie to playing in a mid-tier league thousands of miles away, we must go back to May 5, 2017.
That was the day the 6-foot-6, 235-pound netminder inked a four-year, $16.6 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. He did so just weeks after the Hawks traded his rights to Carolina for a third-round pick.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to learn how to be the best starter I can be," Darling said that day. "I have a good network of goalie friends. I'm going to be picking their brains and asking them for help."
But that's not what happened. Instead, Darling admittedly took his foot off the gas. He wasted that summer and showed up to training camp out of shape.
Making the transition from backup to starter can be tough mentally and that was the case for Darling, whose battle with alcoholism came to the forefront during the Hawks' 2015 Stanley Cup run.
"Bigger contract, bigger expectations," Darling said. "I didn't do my job that summer. I just started behind and I never caught up."
When the 2017-18 campaign was over, Darling ranked dead last in save percentage (.888) and 46th in goals-against average (3.18).
Things only got worse last season as Darling was put on waivers, assigned to the minors, dealt with injuries and tragically lost his father in a drowning accident in May.
Shortly after the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina's AHL team) claimed the Calder Cup over the Chicago Wolves, Darling was traded to Florida and promptly bought out of the final two years of his contract.
Darling's chance to find an NHL or AHL home this season came to an abrupt end during a freak "zoomies" accident that involved Moose, his 170-pound Great Dane.
"We call it the zoomies, where he gets hyper and starts running around the house," said Darling, who lives in Chicago with his fiancee, Jackie. "He's so big that he literally took out a corner of one of our walls one time. So when he started doing his circles, I tried to stop him.
"I put my hand out and he literally ran right through it and broke two bones in my palm."
At this moment during our interview, Moose went into zoomie mode, forcing Darling to put him outside.
"He's a big boy," Darling laughed. "We've got a little horse running around."
The injury put Darling on the shelf for six weeks and forced him to look for work overseas. After talking to his agent about playing in Russia or Sweden, he found out Innsbruck needed a netminder.
Now, the Austrian Hockey League isn't close to the same competition you'll find in the Kontinental Hockey League or the Swedish Hockey League, but Darling fell in love with Innsbruck two years ago while on vacation. The fifth-largest city in Austria with approximately 120,000 residents, Innsbruck is in a valley located in the vast Karwendel mountain range. The city hosted the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics.
"It's just so beautiful. I've traveled (a lot) around the world and it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen," Darling said. "We lived at a really cool point where we could literally be on top of a mountain in 10 minutes."
And, yes, Moose made the journey as well.
"It was expensive," Darling said, laughing. "He's so big that he had to travel like he's a horse or a circus animal. It was a process, but we found a pretty good company that's known for taking dogs international."
Virus closes in
Darling's team, which included former Hawks draft pick Luc Snuggerud, was ravaged with injuries for about half the season. Things got so bad that Innsbruck lost its final 11 regular-season games.
But the league gives every team a second chance during a 10-game qualification round, and Innsbruck took advantage by winning three of its first four contests. As the round was winding down in late February, it became apparent that if Innsbruck advanced, it would likely face a team from Bolzano, Italy, in a best-of-seven series.
The coronavirus was becoming a serious issue in Italy at this point, causing concern for most of Darling's teammates.
"We were like, 'Uh ... can we play seven home games?'" Darling said.
Not everyone was paying attention to the COVID-19 warnings, however, and one Innsbruck player took his family to lunch in a small Italian town on an off day.
"He posted on Instagram and we're all like, 'What are you doing?' " Darling said. "Figure out what's going on right now in the world. Don't go down to Italy for lunch."
Innsbruck ended up dropping its final two games and did not advance to the next round. Darling came back to Chicago March 4, and the league ended up shutting down just a week later.
Had Innsbruck advanced, though, Darling's experience upon arriving in the U.S. may have been much different.
"I still would have been able to come home as a U.S. citizen," he said. "But I would have had to be tested and then quarantined when I got home. Like legit quarantine.
"Obviously we are quarantining, but it would have been a mandated quarantine for me. That happened probably 10 days after I got home."
Darling played 33 games for Innsbruck, posting an .898 save percentage and 3.34 goals-against average.
He wasn't thrilled with that second statistic, but pointed out that Innsbruck wasn't exactly playing with a full deck for much of the season. Once the 10-game playoff began, Innsbruck started making some noise, with opponents averaging just 2.38 goals in Games 2 through 9.
"Personally, I thought I had a good season," Darling said. "Obviously you can see by the numbers my goals against was a little higher than I'd like. But save percentage was decent.
"For the first 20 games I was there we didn't have a full team on the ice, so it was kind of rough. But after the imports got healthy we had a pretty good run."
So what now?
Darling is 31 years old. He's 6-foot-6. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goalie. He produced a .923 save percentage and 2.37 GAA in 75 games for the Hawks from 2014 to 2017.
Odds are he'll land another job next season, but he's in no hurry to sign a deal with the NHL having halted operations due to COVID-19.
"This pandemic has kind of sidetracked everything," Darling said. "I was talking to some teams here. Ideally I'm going to try and play here next year, whether it be starting in the (AHL) or whatever.
"Right now teams have bigger issues to worry about than signing a second or third goalie for next year. It's kind of just a wait-and-see game."