A series of fortunate occurrences combined with hard work and a strong support group helped Darling overcome much and experience an incredible rise from the depths of professional hockey and the lowest moments in his personal life.
Darling helped save Chicago's chances of winning the Stanley Cup in 2015 by replacing Corey Crawford in goal and winning three games against the Nashville Predators. Crawford will start Friday when the Blackhawks face the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round series at United Center (9:30 p.m.; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2), but Darling, a Lemont, Ill., native, has already, with a lot of determination, saved his career.
"Some pretty amazing things had to fall into place. Obviously it is a combination of my mindset and my drive, but also I had to get lucky along the way," the 26-year-old said.
Darling's big break was cemented at a restaurant in Connecticut in the summer of 2013. He drove there from Boston, where he works out in the summer at Stop It Goaltending. Mitch Korn, then the goaltending coach for the Nashville Predators, had an opening and contacted Brian Daccord, the founder of SIG, about another player.
"I was like, 'Hey, I got a better kid in my [4 o'clock] group,'" Daccord said before uploading some highlights of Darling to YouTube and sending the link to Korn.
Darling battled problems with alcohol and social anxiety. He was kicked off the team at the University of Maine after two seasons in 2010, and played for six teams in four leagues the past two seasons. Daccord banned him from SIG for a summer, even though Darling had been working with him since he was 14 years old.
That was before he began to turn his life around during the summer of 2011, and two years later Daccord recommended him to one of the best goaltending coaches in the world.
"I mean, I knew who Mitch Korn was. I've always been huge goalie fan and a goalie nerd," Darling said. "He happened to be in Connecticut with his traveling goalie camp. I was like, 'Yeah, whatever you need. I'll drive to Connecticut right now if you want.' So the next day I drove down and we met at this little Italian place that he knows and we just sat there for a couple of hours.
"He wanted to know about my background, and sort of check out my character. He really wasn't concerned with hockey stuff. He'd known about me and seen some film on me, but he wanted to get to know me as a person. We had a really good talk over a few hours and some good pasta, and the next day I signed with Milwaukee [of the American Hockey League]."
Korn watched the highlights, and obtained more video of Darling from the Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL team he played for during the 2012-13 season. At 6-foot-6 with exceptional athleticism for a goaltender that size, the physical tools Darling displayed and the potential he offered were obvious, but so was his past.
During the meeting, Darling convinced Korn he was worth the risk. They also discovered some remarkable connections.
Along with Korn and Daccord, Darling counts his agent, Matt Keator, and his best friend, goaltender Cody Reichard, as people who offered invaluable support. Reichard was a goalie at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the school Korn has been associated with for three decades.
"Cody Reichard has been in my goalie camp since he was 9 years old," said Korn, the Washington Capitals goalie coach. "Sometimes there is only two, or even one degree of separation in my goalie world. Darling was visiting Reichard at Miami and he met this girl who he is still with today. That girl was my daughter's roommate in college at Miami University.
"We're finding all this out during this conversation in Connecticut and, forget that I liked the video, forget that I liked the research that I had, there were just these things where our worlds were crossing and it just felt right. It felt like he was worthy of a second chance. It was a huge risk, because you never know.
"What a great story the way it has turned out."
The Predators had four goalies in front of Darling on the depth chart, so he probably was going to spend most of the season in the ECHL. A serious injury to Pekka Rinne changed those plans, and Darling ended up splitting time with Magnus Hellberg for Milwaukee.
Darling played 26 games and had a .933 save percentage. After years of toiling in various lower leagues, he finally had a chance one step from the NHL and, with the help of Korn and Admirals goaltending coach Ben Vanderklock, he flourished.
"People don't realize that I was a big benefactor from that," Darling said of Rinne's hip injury. "[Marek Mazanec] was too because he got to go up and play 25 games for Nashville. I was like the behind-the-scenes guy who really caught his break because of that. It was unfortunate for Pekka, but that's kind of how guys get their chances. Every goalie moved up a rung, and I tried to play the best I could. He actually came down to Milwaukee and I got sent to Cincinnati for a couple days while he took my job, but it was good. The year worked out great for me."
The year before that, Darling earned more playing time with Wheeling because another goalie broke his hand. Darling signed a contract with the Nailers for 2012-13 because coach Clark Donatelli saw him playing summer pick-up hockey in Foxborough, Mass.
In 2011-12, Darling played for the Mississippi RiverKings in the Southern Professional Hockey League. He spent 2010-11 in the league, but won six times in 30 games and had an .893 save percentage with the Louisiana IceGators.
They did not want him back, but RiverKings coach Derek Landmesser was intrigued.
"I got this job in August of the season he came here. He was available, and I don't think it was a secret about his past," Landmesser said. "He'd had a few bumps in the road. I had a conversation with him and said, 'This is an opportunity that I'm not sure too many other teams would give you.'
"He wanted to come in and turn himself around, and I think he took those steps. I had the stories about previous years, but I gave him that opportunity. He came in and played well for us. He was still a little overweight, but it was a process. He had to shed a few pounds, but he put that time in and dedicated himself. It's paid off to see where he is today."
After Darling was booted from his college team, Daccord offered to let him stay with his family, but Darling declined. At the end of that summer, he was told not to come back to SIG.
"He saw the bottom," Daccord said. "He was there. He needed to get that low for it to sink in."
After playing in the SPHL, the Central Hockey League, the ECHL and the AHL, his hometown team, the Blackhawks, offered him a one-year, two-way NHL contract.
"You couldn't have written it any better," Darling said. "It is almost hilarious the way it worked out. I was trying to find a contract last summer and hoping for the best. Literally the best-case scenario happened."
His good fortune and his rise was not complete. He passed Michael Leighton on the depth chart for Rockford, and then another injury, this time to Crawford, allowed Darling to reach the NHL.
He and Antti Raanta each played 14 games and had matching .936 save percentages during the regular season, but Darling earned the backup role behind Crawford for the playoffs, and he was called upon with the Blackhawks down three goals in Game 1 against the Predators.
Darling won Game 1 in relief, then went back to the bench for Game 2, but started Games 3 through 6, helping his favorite team growing up knock out the organization that helped salvage his career.
"I honestly haven't played against old teams that much. I'm always in different leagues," Darling said. "I tried not to think about it during the series, because Nashville was awesome for me."
It has been nearly four years since Darling began his quest in to fix his personal life and save his professional one. Not only has he found balance, he's been able to help others.
One of Daccord's stipulations when he let Darling return to SIG for the summer of 2012 was he would lecture the younger goaltenders in the program about making the correct choices and avoiding pitfalls as successful hockey players. Now he does some public speaking in a similar vein.
Darling is an inspiration to players in lower professional hockey leagues everywhere. He's the only SPHL alum to play in the NHL. Daccord said goalies need timing and luck, and "when you're 6-foot-6, athletic and can handle the puck, you get a lot more luck than other kids."
That said, Darling's story of perseverance and redemption offers a lot of relatable qualities.
"It's fun to see him to get rewarded after having battled through a lot of stuff," Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "It's really good to see him here, and he's a great guy. He's obviously a good goalie and he's a great teammate."
When Darling was 18, Daccord sat with him in his SIG office and told him he had the potential to be a starting goaltender in the NHL. He also told Darling if his work ethic and approach didn't change, he would spend every summer looking for a job.
That came true. Darling spent each of the past five summers searching for work. In the middle, he found stability away from the rink and eventually some of the success Daccord envisioned.
Two years ago, not long before Darling met Korn that day in Connecticut, Daccord tried to land him a job. When he is not running SIG, Daccord is a goaltending consultant for Adler Manheim in Germany's top division. He lobbied members of the organization to give Darling a chance … with the club's minor-league team.
It would have paid 23,000 Euros (approximately $30,000). Adler Manheim passed.
Less than 24 months later, Darling became a playoff hero for his hometown team and has a two-year NHL contract through 2016-17.
"He just needed a second kick at the can," Korn said. "He is older and smarter now. I am a big believer in late bloomers, and he has certainly been one."