Haydar appreciates his career, wherever he's played
Wednesday, 12.12.2012 9:45 AM
For a few seconds there only is laughter on the other end of the phone as a conversation about the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens in a professional hockey career momentarily are forgotten.
If you're Chicago Wolves forward Darren Haydar, a 33-year-old minor-league lifer stuck in a world that constantly changes around him, what else can you do but laugh when yet another interviewer asks you about Crash Davis, the infamous forever dreaming farmhand played by Kevin Costner in the movie "Bull Durham."
Haydar has been referred to as the Crash Davis of the American Hockey League. He knows it and finally can laugh about it.
"I look at life and I'm more of a realistic person than a dreamer, so that just makes me laugh," Haydar told NHL.com. "You're dealt the cards you're dealt and I want to do the best I can with them."
Haydar's perspective originates from playing in 726 AHL games (and counting), versus just 23 National Hockey League games over an 11-year professional career.
His perspective comes from watching younger players with inferior statistics get called up to the NHL club instead of him.
It comes from annual talks with coaches, scouts and executives who tell him the only way he'd ever make it in the NHL is if he were a top-six forward -- and because none of them are willing to give him a legitimate crack at proving he can be one despite the fact that he has produced 739 points (273 goals, 467 assists) in the AHL.
Haydar re-signed with the Wolves on an AHL one-way contract in July. It's the third straight year he's playing on an AHL one-way contract.
"Does it frustrate me?" Haydar said, repeating the question. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't frustrate me, but it's just something I've got to live with."
Don't, however, confuse Haydar's frustration with ill-will. He harbors none, partly because of what has gone on in his personal life.
Haydar's wife, Sara, has been battling throat cancer for nearly five years -- she was diagnosed three months before Haydar won the Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves in 2008.
Sara has been through nearly 30 surgical procedures and had a tracheotomy tube for roughly three-and-a-half years. However, the tube has since been removed and Haydar said Sara is almost at the point where doctors can say her cancer is in remission.
"It lets me know I'm playing a game for a living and there are people going through things in life that are a lot worse than what I'm doing," Haydar said. "I get to play hockey for a paycheck."
To this day he still doesn't want to believe or buy into all the reasons why that paycheck didn't come from an NHL team.
It's easier for NHL experts to determine why Haydar and the numbers he has put up in the AHL largely have been ignored.
Speed. Size. Fit.
The Wolves list Haydar as 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds.
He never has been seen as a speed burner or dynamic skater, which are two traits that allow a lot of smaller players to make it in the NHL.
While being lauded by NHL coaches and executives for his scoring skill and hockey IQ, those same NHL coaches and executives don't believe Haydar would be able to handle the physical rigors of being a first- or second-line player in the NHL, nor do they think he can grind successfully in a third- or fourth-line role.
"He's not slow, but to break away from the back pressure on the check, I don't know if he has that," Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach John Anderson told NHL.com. "The guys are so big and strong [in the NHL] that they can man-handle him a bit."
Anderson would know, considering he coached Haydar in Chicago and to this day calls him one of, if not the smartest player, he ever has had. He especially has been dangerous on the power play, putting up 111 extra-man goals, mainly because of the way he thinks the game and sees the ice in the offensive zone.
"He has that superstar ability to think the game," Anderson said. "But if he goes [to the NHL], he'd have to play at least 20 games on the power play, every power play, to see if he can really survive. At the same token it's hard for a coach in the NHL, who is under tremendous pressure, to pass on everybody else and say, 'I'm going to give this guy a chance.'"
Haydar was picked in the ninth round (No. 248) of the 1999 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. He played two games for them in 2002-03, but didn't get back to the NHL until a four-game stint with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006-07.
Haydar's longest NHL stint came the following season when he played 16 games with Atlanta after making the team out of training camp. He scored eight points and got on the second power-play unit for about half his time there, but was returned to Chicago and under Anderson scored 27 points in the Calder Cup Playoffs to lead the Wolves to the championship.
He hasn't been in the NHL since Feb. 10, 2010 -- his lone game that season with the Colorado Avalanche.
"He lacks dynamic skating ability and his lack of size hinders him more because he doesn't have that skating ability," NHL Network and TSN analyst/scout Craig Button told NHL.com. "I'm not surprised he hasn't gotten another chance because he was tried and his liabilities were not changing."
Haydar, though, thought he would get the chance to change opinions in 2008-09 after signing a one-year, two-way deal with Detroit. He figured the Red Wings' style suited him well enough that coach Mike Babcock and GM Ken Holland wouldn't balk at putting him on the power play, and thus, on the NHL roster.
Except, they did.
Haydar never played for the Red Wings. Instead, he played the entire season in Grand Rapids -- putting up 80 points on 31 goals and 49 assists in 79 games -- while Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader all got called up to the Red Wings at different points.
"He's just kind of in-between everything," Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill told NHL.com. "He's just missing a little bit. It's not any fault of his -- it's part of his nature. He's not very big. He's not real fast or quick. He's very good, but to be in the top-six you're playing with a Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg or Joe Thornton or you're playing against those guys. He's not good enough to do that.
"He just hasn't been quite dynamic enough to be in the top-six and he doesn't fit a role in the bottom-six."
There still may be a chance for Haydar to make his mark in the NHL -- as a coach.
Anderson made the comparison to Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, who spent roughly 32 years in the minors, with 141 NHL games and 30 World Hockey Association games mixed in, before he got the call-up to the big club in Washington as a 52-year-old head coach.
"That's something I'd love to pursue when I'm done playing," Haydar said of coaching. "I'd have to cross that bridge when I get to it, but making it to the NHL coaching would be just as gratifying."
If it happens, at the very least Haydar would distance himself from the comparison to Crash Davis -- a comparison that still makes him laugh even though it's not exactly a compliment.
"I understand the game is a business," Haydar said. "I still get to play the game for a living."