Darren Haydar’s job is to put his name on the scoresheet.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
In military parlance, a point man is the lead soldier, the infantryman who assumes the most exposed position heading into combat. As the first soldier advancing into hostile or unsecured territory, the point man is often the first to take enemy fire.
Needless to say, the point man must stand tall, accepting the risks and challenges associated with being a leader.
Darren Haydar would make a perfect point man, and not just because he would provide a smaller target.
While it’s true that he is hardly an imposing figure at 5-foot-9, it’s the size of his heart, his willingness to lead and, most importantly, his ability to score that set him apart.
Haydar, who plays the point on the Griffins’ power play, is serving as the team’s captain for the 2008-09 season.
He is, after all, a proven winner. He captained the Chicago Wolves to the 2008 Calder Cup championship, four years after leading the Milwaukee Admirals to their first title.
He is also a prolific point producer, unlike any ever seen in the American Hockey League.
This past spring, Haydar became both the all-time leading goal scorer and point-getter in Calder Cup playoff history within six minutes’ time.
He scored his 52nd career AHL postseason goal on a breakaway in the second game of the Calder Cup finals, breaking the record previously held by AHL Hall of Famer and current Rochester Americans general manager Jody Gage.
Minutes later, he converted on a power play, recording his 120th career AHL postseason point, surpassing the record held since 1971 by AHL Hall of Famer Willie Marshall.
Haydar had inked his name in the AHL record books the previous season with the Wolves. He broke a 20-year-old record when he strung together a 39-game point streak in 2006-07 (the previous mark had been 31 consecutive games).
He is, without question, the point man without peer in the AHL.
“I just do what I do,” he says matter-of-factly, underplaying the dedication and determination that have driven him to a point that few foresaw when he was a scrawny kid growing up in Milton, Ontario, a town of 30,000 west of Toronto.
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.
Even so, no one would have guessed that Haydar would someday be the point producer that he was destined to become. He was too little to make any significant mark on the game.
“I’ve had to deal with that adversity my whole career,” Haydar said. “When you’re small, people question whether you can play. But it was definitely a driving force for me. It made me want to become a better player.”
His hard work paid off. In spite of his size, he eventually attracted the attention of a number of major colleges. He narrowed his choices to Michigan State University and New Hampshire before deciding to choose, rather appropriately, the smaller school.
That was his first mistake, jokes Griffins rookie and former MSU star Justin Abdelkader, but Haydar disagrees. “It’s funny because I have a lot of friends from Michigan State now, but I was definitely happy at New Hampshire.”
At New Hampshire, he was able to play with his brother Jeff, with whom he had played in junior hockey. "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 frequently made the nine-hour trip from Ontario and New Hampshire to see their boys play, even though hockey was a bit foreign at first.
“My father's from Africa -- Tanzania, to be exact -- and he's skated like twice in his life,” Haydar said. “He was a good tennis player and he came to Canada to go to school.”
Of course, you can hardly live in Canada without developing an appreciation for hockey, so his parents encouraged his athletic interests. “My parents have always been my biggest supporters.”
He's thankful for the encouragement, especially since things haven’t always gone quite as he might have wished.
Although he made his NHL debut as a rookie pro during the 2002-03 season, Haydar has only seen action in a total of 22 NHL games, the majority of them coming last season with the Atlanta Thrashers.
“It’s been bittersweet,” Haydar said. “I felt like I showed I could fit in. I still believe I have what it takes to play at the NHL level.”
Haydar, who was on a bus from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee when he got his first callup six years ago, appeared in 16 NHL games last season, recording eight points, including his first and only goal.
The magical moment came on Oct. 13, 2007, against the New Jersey Devils when he beat Martin Brodeur, who will likely become the winningest goaltender in NHL history.
“It was a 2-on-2 with Bryan Little and he cut in front of me. I used him as a screen and beat Brodeur to the top left side,” he recalled. “It felt good to get that monkey off my back. It’s the one time in my career that I felt pressure.”
Haydar has proven that he knows how to play under pressure. He has led the AHL in playoff scoring in three postseasons - 2004, 2006 and 2007 - during his six years in the league.
“The first 80 games of the year are preparation for the playoffs – that’s when the real season begins,” Haydar said. “I’ve taken a lot of pride in doing the little things that it takes to win a trophy.”
That includes growing a mustache.
Chicago was up 2-0 in its second round Calder Cup series when the Wolves dropped three straight games to Rockford. When teammate Colin Stuart suggested the Wolves ditch their playoff beards in favor of mustaches, Haydar championed the idea.
The Wolves rallied with four goals in the second period of Game 6 to tie the series, then crushed Rockford 4-1 in Game 7 to take the series on the way to the Cup. “The mustaches ended up working for us,” he chuckles.
It also led to a case of mistaken identity. “I was sitting at Starbucks when I was mistaken for a limousine driver,” he recalled. “Someone came up to me asking if I could drive them to the airport.”
After winning his second Calder Cup in six years, Haydar had planned on heading overseas to play in Europe this season, but fate intervened.
First, his girlfriend — Sara Schuster of Chicago – learned she had throat cancer. Then, the Stanley Cup champions offered him a contract to stay in North America.
He knew the odds were stacked against him – the Red Wings have the NHL’s most talent-laden roster – but the opportunity to stay close to Sara during her illness far outweighed any financial considerations of playing overseas.
“They obviously have the deepest team in the National Hockey League, but I’m not counting myself out,” Haydar said. “I know it’s going to be tough, but I hope to crack some games with them.”
Haydar felt the puck-possession style of play favored by the Red Wings organization matched his own game, plus he was spoiled. He was accustomed to playing for winners.
In six AHL seasons, Haydar’s teams have always qualified for the playoffs and only failed to register less than 101 standings points once – his rookie season, and his team still had a winning record that year.
So Haydar was only too happy to continue working his way around Lake Michigan, moving from Milwaukee to Chicago to Grand Rapids on a journey that he hopes will end in Detroit.
“I’ve got to continue doing what I’ve done in the past,” he said. “The Wings have a great team, but it’s just a matter of fitting in the right spot at the right time. They call up the guys who are playing the best, so I’m just trying to give myself the best opportunity.”
Haydar admits that he has struggled at times early in the season, a situation that he attributes to having his mind on things other than hockey.
In mid-October, his family and friends held a benefit for Sara, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for her cancer. T he event, which was held at Glencairn Golf Club in Milton, drew 250 people.
“We called it ‘Sunflowers for Sara,’ because she loves sunflowers,” Haydar said of the event which included dinner, dancing, a fashion show and a silent auction. “It went really well.”
Meanwhile, he knows what he needs to do to stay focused. “My job is to be on the scoresheet,” Haydar said. “Being able to score points is why I have a job.”
He is thankful that his teammates have been able to pick up the slack. “Hockey is a team game – it’s not about one player,” he said. “Any success you have, you enjoy as a team, so you have to give credit where credit is due.”
Haydar has come to recognize the common thread that binds all good teams. “It’s all about making the pieces of the puzzle fit,” he said.
“Everyone has a job and it’s important that you accept your role, whether your on the first line or the third or fourth. If you look at any great team, you’ll find a team with a lot of leaders.”