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Love and Happiness

Mar 15, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

As a two-time Stanley Cup winner who retired after 16 seasons in the NHL, former Griffins center Darren Helm is perfectly content to stay home with his family.

Story by Mark Newman

Darren Helm had less than an hour before he had to pick up his girls from school. The two-time Stanley Cup champion laughed when the first question was asked. Which was harder: the adjustment from the AHL to the NHL, or from the NHL to full-time dad?

"That's a good one," chuckled Helm, who retired from hockey after the 2022-23 season. "It's definitely a different transition. I had a couple of years in the NHL where I spent time on the sidelines, helping out some, but now I'm fully into it."

Helm, who played his last two NHL seasons with the Colorado Avalanche after spending his first 14 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, said his decision was made easier because it meant he could see more of his family.

Walking away from hockey and staying home has finally allowed him to have all the time in the world with his wife, Devon, and their three children: Reece, 12; Rylee, 9; and Zoe, 7.

"It's been great," he said. "I love being home with the kids and finally getting to go and watch some of their events and help out around the house."

If playing in the NHL was worth millions of dollars, staying home with the kids has been priceless.

"It's been the best," he said. "They've been kind of asking when am I going to leave again or take off. 'You've been home a lot. What's going on?' But it's been fun. I'd like to think that they've enjoyed it as well."

At age 37, Helm is content to have closed the book on a lengthy career that saw him play 823 NHL games after starting his professional journey in Grand Rapids, where he played parts of three seasons.

A native of St. Andrews, Manitoba, Helm joined the Griffins following three years of junior hockey with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Western Hockey League. He was drafted by the Red Wings in the fifth round (#132 overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

For a 20-year-old kid from western Canada, going to western Michigan put him in a place that was a long way from where he started, a challenge measured in more than physical distance. Psychologically, it was practically a whole new world.

"There's a lot to remember," he said. "As far as the transition goes, for me, I thought I had a little bit of trouble with it, being the first time living on my own, without my mom or dad, or the billet family that had taken care of me. Going from a kid to an adult was a little tricky.

"The game itself was a little bit harder, too. Suddenly, I was playing against men much older than me. But I really liked the team, the guys were all great, which made the transition a lot smoother, I think. The city itself, I love Grand Rapids – great city, good people.

"I look back at my time in Grand Rapids as a big success. It helped me grow as a person before I moved on to Detroit."

Helm appeared in 67 games with the Griffins during his first pro season in 2007-08, tallying 16 goals and 15 assists for 31 points as the highest-scoring rookie on a team that finished 10 games under the .500 mark, finishing with a record that put them 25th out of 29 teams in the AHL.

He was one of three 20-year-olds (Jakub Kindl and Mattias Ritola) on a young team that included other future Wings (Kyle Quincey, 22; Jonathan Ericsson, 23; Jimmy Howard, 23) and other prospects (Evan McGrath, 21; Ryan Oulahen, 22; Jamie Tardif, 22) as well as several veterans, including longtime Red Wings winger Darren McCarty, who played 13 games for the Griffins to fuel a return to Detroit at age 35 after two seasons with the Calgary Flames.

"Carl Corazzini and Mark Cullen were two veterans who put me under their wing a little bit and helped me out, got me around to places," he recalled. "They were really nice guys to me and they treated my girlfriend, now my wife, really well, too."

Although he still had much to learn, Helm already knew that it would take hard work to get to where he wanted to go. There is the indelible sight of a solitary figure running up and down the stairs inside a darkened Van Andel Arena long after a Griffins game had finished. It was none other than Helm.

Already the fastest guy on the team and certainly one of the quickest in the league, he felt he could get even faster.

"I knew I was never going to be the most skilled guy in the league, the guy who could get away with doing the bare minimum. I knew my path was trying to outwork the next guy across from me, and I learned that early during my junior days in Medicine Hat. I knew I had to work extra hard and I carried that into Grand Rapids.

"Every time I did that, I felt like I could make some strides and get ahead of a few other players. It was a good lesson for me and I continued to do that in Detroit. I think that was a big part of why I was able to play for as long as I did.

"The stairs thing started in Medicine Hat, too. We did it as a team a couple of times during my first or second year there and I loved it. I felt like it helped me with my speed and power. I noticed every time I did the stairs, I'd feel better the next night. If I ran the stairs a couple of times after a bad game, it would give me a little bit more confidence to have a bounce-back game the next time.

"It sucked sometimes, but I kept on pushing."

Helm went scoreless in seven regular season games with the Wings as a rookie in 2007-08, but he stuck in Detroit for the team's entire Stanley Cup run.

He figured that there was little chance that he would crack the playoff lineup, but Wings head coach Mike Babcock gave him the nod in Game 5 of a tied first-round series against Nashville and Helm made the most of the opportunity.

Citing Helm's speed, grittiness, and strong defensive play, Babcock hoped Helm would give the team a shot of energy. Helm ending up centering the team's fourth line the rest of the way to winning the Stanley Cup. In 18 games, Helm chipped in two goals and two assists. His strong, overall play kept him in the lineup.

So Helm found it a little disheartening when he was back in Grand Rapids the next season after having been a fixture during the postseason. To say he was unhappy about the situation is an understatement, to say the least.

"I thought I'd proven myself," he said. "It would be easy to say I thought it was probably the right decision, but I was pretty pissed off about it, for sure. I guess Kenny [Detroit GM Ken Holland] had other plans. I was the cocky 21-year-old coming in off a Cup win, so he knocked me down a couple of pegs and I think it humbled me as well. It probably kept me a little grounded, too.

"Looking back now, it was probably the right decision. I was able to go back to Grand Rapids, still a great place to play with a good group of guys. After I finished giving myself a pity party for a week, I was able to get myself back on track and get going again."

The Red Wings, meanwhile, had made a coaching change in Grand Rapids, dismissing Mike Stothers after a single season and promptly hiring Curt Fraser, who had served as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues after being the head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers during the club's first four seasons as an NHL expansion team.

"Stothers was a tough coach," Helm said. "I think he helped me grow mentally. Sometimes I didn't love his message, but at the same time, it was probably the one I needed to hear. Fraser was a great coach. I liked him a lot.

"Unfortunately, I haven't talked to either of them since. I remember getting called up both seasons and they were both extremely excited and happy for the guys who got called up, and that was great to see.

"They both had little different ways of pushing you, but at the end of the day, they wanted whatever was best for the players. They were always excited for guys to get called up and get a chance to play in the NHL."

Helm appeared in 16 games with Detroit during the 2008-09 NHL season, recording his first and only point of the campaign by assisting on a Jiri Hudler goal against Colorado on Feb. 15, 2009 at Joe Louis Arena.

Once again, Helm became a key member of the Red Wings' playoffs roster as Detroit attempted to defend its Stanley Cup title. Although his team fell short, dropping Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Helm improved his production, recording four goals and an assist in 23 postseason contests.

Helm is the only player in history to score his first six NHL goals in the playoffs, a fact he wears as a badge of honor as a player who always gave more than the proverbial 110 percent in the playoffs, when goals are typically harder to score.

"I love that stat, absolutely," he said. "Hopefully no one looks back and sees the fact that I probably had 30 games [ED. NOTE: it was 29] in the regular season before I was able to score. Maybe they were sending me down for the next season, giving me a chance to run that record up a little higher, I don't know, but I enjoy the record. It's cool.

"I'm sure it's going to get broken one day. Just watching some of the talent coming into the league these days, it's pretty impressive. But, for now, it's a fun record to have."

Helm scored 119 goals during his 16 NHL seasons, which were frequently interrupted by injuries. Various ailments reduced his availability for three consecutive seasons in the middle of his career, including a back injury that kept him out for all but one game in 2012-13.

Even so, he had his share of highlight goals during his career.

One of his more memorable goals was knocking in the overtime winner in Game 5 against Chicago in 2009's conference finals, which sent Detroit back to the Stanley Cup Final. He also scored two shorthanded goals in the Red Wings' New Year's Eve game against Colorado in 2009, and he recorded his only hat trick in Toronto against the Maple Leafs on March 29, 2014.

"Those are things I don't think about too often, but every once in a while, someone brings them up. Those are good moments in my career, things that give me goosebumps looking back. I was very lucky to have a few of those moments to talk about with family and friends."

Helm played his first eight seasons in Detroit for head coach Mike Babcock; his last six were with Jeff Blashill, the former Griffins head coach who oversaw the beginning stages of the Red Wings' lengthy rebuild after 25 consecutive seasons in the playoffs.

"I liked Babs," Helm said. "I know guys have mixed feelings about him, but I never really got caught up in what people have called his games off the ice. He was pretty straightforward with me. 'This is what we expect out of you. You do it, you play. If you don't, there's the stands, there's the bench, yada, yada, yada.'

"He was always very clear with me. I had my fair share of meetings and video sessions, not the nicest ones, but I think he set me up for the long run. Blash is a great guy. Obviously, they had different situations. With Babs, we were winning; with Blash, we weren't. But I liked Blash a lot. When he went to Tampa, I met up with him a couple of times, just to chat and catch up."

By his final season (2020-21) in Detroit, Helm was the last remaining member of the 2008 Stanley Cup championship team. While he didn't relish parting ways with the Red Wings, he saw a chance to capture a second Stanley Cup title with a young Avalanche team poised to take the next step.

"The last few years in Detroit were tough – we were kind of bottom of the barrel as far as teams go," he said. "I didn't necessarily want to leave, but I wanted another chance to win. With Detroit being in a rebuild, I saw a few teams that had the opportunity to win and that brought me to Colorado."

In Denver, Helm played for Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who had been a rugged, not-afraid-to-drop-his-gloves defenseman in his playing days, including 1998-99 when he led the Griffins in penalty minutes with 220 PIM in 74 games during his only season in Grand Rapids.

"I did hear he was a bit of a tough guy," Helm said. "I'm not much of a YouTuber, so I didn't go back and look, but he's a great coach. You would never have thought he was a fighter. He's just a nice guy. He's honest and expects a lot from you, but at the same time, he gives you some chances. I loved every second playing for him."

Helm battled a lower-body injury that kept him out for a month during the 2021-22 season but he managed to score one of the biggest goals of his career during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After sweeping the Nashville Predators in the opening round, Colorado was knotted 2-2 with the St. Louis Blues in Game 6, up 3-2 in the series. With the game seemingly headed to overtime, Helm scored the game-winner with 5.6 seconds left in regulation to send the Avalanche to the conference finals for the first time in 20 years.

Colorado swept Edmonton in the Western Conference Finals, then bested two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games to give Helm his second taste of hockey's holy grail.

Like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, Colorado had its share of stars (Nathan McKinnon, Cale Maker, and Mikko Rantanen), but it was the throng of role players for each that powered two very different championship teams.

"In both cases, they were teams that bought into what they wanted to do," he said. "It was a lot of guys being happy with their roles and, seeing the results, willing to do the best in their spot.

"It takes high-end talent playing their best hockey as well as everybody else chipping in and being responsible, whether it was blocking shots, hitting, doing all the dirty work. There was just a belief in the room that I felt both teams had."

Helm realized that his decision to go play for the Avalanche would be viewed by some fans as akin to making a pact with the devil, but he contends their anger was misplaced.

"I was like 10 years old when all that was going on," he said. "I never really watched hockey. There was no hockey team in Winnipeg after the Jets had left, so I didn't realize the rivalry those two teams had. But I still hear from some people about it, like, 'I can't believe you did that.'

"At the end of the day, I think people were happy for me. I haven't talked to anyone who's been a complete jerk about it. Even some of the guys from the Wings who lived through that rivalry texted me after we won, congratulating me. I think that says a lot about the sport in general and the guys I got to play with."

Helm admits that it seemed "weird" walking into the Avalanche locker room after 14 seasons in Detroit.

"The guys there were great," he said. "We had a few new faces on the team that year and they welcomed everybody. It was similar to my first years in Detroit, where we had a common goal. We wanted to do everything we could to win it.

"I wanted to win it again, which was why I had to leave Detroit, to get the feeling of winning again, and it ended up paying off. It was a great year."

Helm had hoped to help Colorado repeat as Cup winners, but he was limited to 11 games last season, which hastened his decision to retire.

"I was very fortunate to have a very long, successful career, so when my body kept breaking down the way it's been, I felt like it was time [to call it quits]," he said.

He has no regrets.

"There are times when I'm watching games, and you remember the good times, and the fun and the excitement of the game, just being around the guys – those are all great parts of the game that I love.

"At the same time, I'm not missing it a whole lot. I'm getting to spend a lot of time with my family. I'm getting to do things that I couldn't really do before. I've got the chance to finally pursue different hobbies that I've wanted to get to, so I haven't second-guessed things.

"Sure, there have been times I wish I was still out there with the guys, but I'm pretty happy with my decision."

And so now Helm is content to watch gymnastics, swimming, and tennis instead of hockey. Although his family is currently living in the Denver area, Helm isn't sure where they will end up or what he will eventually do for a second career.

"We are still kicking things around, trying to figure out what we want to do," he said. "We came out to Denver for this school year, but we were in Michigan for a long time and have a lot of great friends back there, so we'll have to see where we end up. It's a constant conversation between my wife and I."

And although it increasingly looks like he will end up doing something outside of hockey, Helm doesn't rule out doing something in the game eventually.

"I wouldn't say hockey's completely out of the question, but it's pretty low on the score right now of things I want to do," he said. "My dream was to play in the NHL. As a kid, I didn't think I'd get to play in the NHL ever, but getting a chance to play for 16 years and win two Stanley Cups, I couldn't be happier."