Milwaukee Admirals rookie Darren Haydar found himself skating headlong into the NHL after making a strong first impression playing in the American Hockey League.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Darren Haydar was playing cards in the back of the Admirals' bus on a return trip to Milwaukee from Grand Rapids when he got the news.
"We were about 45 minutes to an hour into the trip when Coach (Peter Horachek) came back and told Greg Classen and me that they were dropping us off in downtown Chicago," Haydar recalls.
Haydar, a 5-9, 170-lb. rookie out of the University of New Hampshire, made his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators on Nov. 17 at the United Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was his fourth game in four nights.
"Considering the way I was feeling after playing three games in three nights, I don't know if I had even enough energy to be nervous," Haydar laughs. "But it was definitely exciting.
Actually, the butterflies were going when he took the ice on a line with Classen and former Red Wings forward Brent Gilchrist.
"Playing in the NHL has been my dream my whole life -- it's every kid's dream who grows up in Canada," says Haydar, who was born and raised in Milton, Ontario, a town of 30,000 west of Toronto. "It all happened so quick that it was kind of a blur.
Eventually he settled down -- "As the game wore on, I felt more comfortable with each shift," he says -- but he was still in a bit of a fog when he left the ice for the final time. He suffered a mild concussion on the last shift of the game when he took a check into the boards.
The injury forced him to sit out the Admirals' next four contests. "It's the first time in my entire life that I missed a game," he says. "It's not how I wanted to remember my first NHL game.
Although he felt more tired than anything, Haydar was held out of the lineup as a precautionary measure after he failed a neurological exam required by the NHL. "Those were some tough days for me," he says.
Haydar earned his ticket to the NHL after a phenomenal start to his professional career. He registered 10 goals and 10 assists in Milwaukee's first 14 games, good enough to be named AHL Rookie of the Month for October.
"I didn't set any expectations above what I could achieve," Haydar says.
"I was just hoping to get an opportunity to play and become a consistent player for Milwaukee. I didn't expect things to go as well as they have.
Making an appearance in the NHL barely a month into his pro career certainly isn't something that the Predators expected when they took Haydar with their last pick (14th choice, 248th overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
"It was a great honor just to be drafted," Haydar says, figuring it was better to be selected late than never. "Some guys get a phone call, but I was just happy to see my name in the paper.
The youngest of three boys, he started skating at a young age. "I think I started as early as I could stand on those cheese cutter skates," remembers Haydar, whose brothers Ryan and Jeff also played hockey.
In fact, Darren and Jeff played together in juniors and later at the University of New Hampshire. "It was like Family Weekend every weekend," Haydar says. "We had a lot of friends there and our parents came down quite a bit. It was almost like we never left home.
Frank and Pauline Haydar made the nine-hour trip from Ontario and New Hampshire to see their boys play. It was more out of a parental responsibility than any deep-seated love of the game.
"My father's from Africa -- Tanzania, to be exact -- and he's skated like twice in his life," Haydar says. "He was a good tennis player and he came to Canada to go to school.
His father, now chief financial officer for a Japanese machine distributor, encouraged his boys' athletic interests, and Darren was fortunate enough to benefit from having two older brothers -- even though he came up a bit short in the size department.
"I've had to deal with that adversity my whole career," Haydar says.
"When you're small, people question whether you can play here or there. But it was definitely a driving force for me. It made me want to become a better player.
In spite of his size, he attracted the attention of a number of major college teams. He narrowed his choices to Michigan State University and New Hampshire before deciding to head east.
"New Hampshire was a smaller school, plus the opportunity to play was greater because they were losing three of their top five scorers," he says, adding that it didn't hurt that the Hockey East school was "only an hour from Boston, an hour from the ski hills and a half-hour from the beach.
In his freshman year, Haydar was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team after finishing third in the nation in goals scored.
"College is definitely an adjustment, whether you're dealing with classes, peer pressure or learning how to practice and prepare for games," Haydar says. "In college, every game is as important as the next because you only play twice a week.
After solid sophomore and junior years, Haydar enjoyed a breakout season during his final year at New Hampshire. He finished second in the nation in scoring with 31 goals and 41 assists. He was a first-team All-American and the Hockey East Player of the Year.
Most significantly, he was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation's top collegiate player.
"Being a finalist had been one of my goals since I played with Hobey Baker winner Jason Krog during my freshman year," Haydar says, crediting the contributions of his teammates.
As far as Haydar is concerned, being named a Hobey Baker finalist is an individual honor, but a team accomplishment. "It wasn't just me -- everybody played a part," he says.
He is disappointed that he couldn't bring an NCAA title to New Hampshire, although he led the team to a couple of Frozen Four appearances, losing to Maine in both his freshman and senior seasons.
Even so, "college was everything I expected it to be," says Haydar, who was team captain and male student-athlete of the year on his way to earning a bachelor's degree in business.
"It was definitely a great experience," he continues. "I think putting on more strength over those four years has been a huge factor in why I've been able to quickly adapt to the pro game.
He credits the Milwaukee coaching staff and players -- Bubba Berenzweig,
Greg Koehler and Pascal Trepanier, among others -- with helping him make the jump from college.
"There are a lot of guys with NHL experience who help you not only on the ice but in the locker room," Haydar says. "They've helped me adapt to the pro lifestyle.
Making the jump to becoming an NHL regular will be an even bigger step, but Haydar believes it is one that he can eventually make. "Every game you play at this level, you learn more and more," he says. "I'm surprised that I got a shot at the NHL as early as I did, but it's only my first crack. Now I'm just itching to get the next one.
And if it comes as the fourth game in four nights again, Haydar won't mind. "If it means playing in the NHL, for sure," he says.
"If I'm playing, I can find the energy somewhere. Hopefully, next time Haydar's parents will get to attend the game. "My parents were on vacation in Aruba when I got called up," he says. "One of my brothers got a hold of them and my father watched the game on TV.
Getting a taste of the NHL will make Haydar hungrier for a return appearance. "It's another thing to drive me in the locker room, in practices and in games," he says. "I want to play the best that I can so hopefully I get another chance.
Haydar makes up for his lack of size with a strong work ethic that is matched by excellent hockey sense. His smarts allow him to find holes in the defense and bury the puck into the net.
"It's a little bit of luck, shooting in spots where goal scorers shoot, but a lot of it is just being in the right place at the right time," he says.
The right place at the right time -- that's how Haydar is able to stand tall among bigger players. Some day, he hopes, it'll mean playing regularly among the giants of the NHL.