Return of a champion

by Elizabeth Casey || AHL On The Beat Archive 

When Darren Haydar walked into the visitors’ dressing room at the Allstate Arena on Nov. 22, 2008, it didn’t feel quite right.

Less than six months earlier, he had been across the hall in the Chicago Wolves dressing room, doused in champagne, surrounded by celebrating teammates and sipping from the American Hockey League’s highest prize: the Calder Cup.

A few hours later, when he scored a goal for the Grand Rapids Griffins, it didn’t feel quite right to Wolves fans, either.

“It was definitely weird,” Haydar said of his initial return to the place he spent two seasons and captured the Calder Cup in 2008. He had won the Cup before, as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals in 2004, and faced off against his former team numerous times, but returning to Chicago just a few months after the championship win brought back a lot of memories.

“Being there with the Chicago fans and the atmosphere in the building and the show that the Wolves put on before the game…it kind of gave me goosebumps,” he explained. “Even though I played for Milwaukee for four years, it was still weird going into the visitors’ locker room. The two years I played for the Wolves were successful years for the team and for me personally, so getting ready in that other locker room just didn’t feel right.”

Two years later, Haydar and Wolves general manager Wendell Young remedied the situation. The Wolves re-signed the high-scoring winger and former captain on July 28, 2010. It’s a situation both parties are pretty happy with.

“There were a lot of reasons we wanted to bring Haydar back into the fold,” Young said. “We had our most successful recent year with Haydar on our team and he’s a premier player in the American Hockey League. He’s a veteran and he’s a leader in that respect, but he’s also a player who really steps up his game in the playoffs. He’s a player that wants to win and that’s something we care a lot about. We want to bring in guys that bring their best game to the biggest games.”

“This is an organization that likes to win and will do what it takes to win and put down a quality team, and for me, that is very important,” Haydar agreed. “I always knew that I wanted to come back to Chicago someday if I was going to play in the AHL. The organization treats its players with respect and it’s a great environment to be in.”

Wolves fans remember Haydar as the skilled captain of the 2008 championship team, but his record of success in the AHL goes far beyond that. He has racked up an impressive collection of honors, ranging from rookie of the year in 2003, to league MVP in 2007, to becoming the AHL’s all-time leader in postseason scoring. This past season, he picked up his 600th career AHL point, making him just the 43rd player ever to accomplish that feat.

Even amidst a career chock full of success, two of Haydar’s most notable seasons came in Chicago.

During the 2006-07 campaign, his first with the Wolves, he set an all-time AHL record and tied Wayne Gretzky’s mark for the fourth-longest point streak in professional hockey history when he recorded a point in 39 consecutive games to start the season. He led the AHL in scoring that year with a career-high 122 points (41 goals, 81 assists) and was subsequently honored with the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL MVP.

A stint with the Wolves’ National Hockey League affiliate, the Atlanta Thrashers, the following season limited the number of games Haydar played in 2007-08, but he still managed to rack up 58 points and help his linemate Jason Krog collect the MVP honor and league scoring titles that had been his the year before.

The duo went on to lead the Wolves past the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the Calder Cup Finals that spring, sharing the league lead with 12 goals each. Along with left wing Brett Sterling, they formed one of the most prolific scoring lines in AHL history.

The potential for two-thirds of that combination to be reunited this year is exciting for Haydar and Wolves fans alike. In addition to helping each other to career seasons and a championship, Haydar and Krog are close friends who have known each other since playing together in college at the University of New Hampshire.

“We are very good friends and we respect each other and respect each other’s games. We push each other during the seasons that we’re playing together,” Haydar said. “Whether we’re on the same line or not, we’re playing to win and we share that mentality. We’re not here just to play. Fun comes with winning for the two of us, so we push each other to do the best we can.”

The Champion Off The Ice

It wasn’t just the numbers on his resume that enticed Wolves general manager Wendell Young to recruit Darren Haydar back to the Wolves. It was also the character that he had witnessed the right wing exhibit firsthand during the 2008 championship run.

“I’ve been around a lot of the players we have now as a coach and seen what they’re like in the dressing room,” explained Young, who spent six seasons as the Wolves assistant coach before being named general manager.

“That’s an advantage when we try to put together a team that isn’t just a great team on the ice, but is a group of quality guys in the dressing room. Any championship team I’ve been a part of has probably been tighter off the ice than they are on the ice, and that says something. You need great character on your team to be able to play as a team and win.”

There is perhaps no better example of this theory than Chicago’s 2008 Calder Cup squad.

While the team was battling through round after round of intense postseason competition, Haydar was quietly grappling with a formidable personal ordeal: his girlfriend, Sara Schuster, was diagnosed with cancer – stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx – just before the playoffs began.

“For myself and for Sara, it was a difficult year,” he recalled. “Being able to win that season when Sara was going through a tough time was something that really helped both of us.”

True to Young’s assessment of a championship team’s tightness off the ice, the players rallied around their captain and his girlfriend, dedicating the championship run to her, and presenting the series-clinching game puck to a tearful Sara amidst chants of “Sara, Sara, Sara,” in the locker room following the win.

In the two years since that day, the 27-year-old Sara has undergone 15 surgeries, including the cancer removal, feeding tube surgery and tracheostomy surgeries. Haydar has been a constant source of support the whole time, despite his hockey career keeping them apart for much of each season.

Her voice box and vocal chords were removed, but using muscle and tissue in her throat that vibrate together like vocal chords, she can still speak quietly and was able to give an enthusiastic yes when Haydar proposed this summer.

Though she continues to undergo treatment and surgery every three months to remove scar tissue and keep her airway open, Sara has been cancer-free since April 2009.

“She’s doing really well. The cancer has stayed away, so that’s a good sign,” Haydar said. “She’s staying strong and positive.”

Reunited with friends and linemates and back in the place where he had some of his greatest achievements, Haydar hopes to lead the rest of the team by example to show just how much fun success can be.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come back to Chicago is to have a chance at winning,” Haydar concluded. “I think that is a personal goal and a team goal this year.”