Darren Haydar could be wearing dress shoes and walking on an office carpet.
Instead, Haydar wears hockey skates. His work surface is a sheet of ice.
And when he shows up to work as a right wing for the Chicago Wolves, thousands of devoted fans happily cheer him on.
“I’m just having fun,” Haydar said. “The day-to-day part of being a hockey player – going to practice, being in the locker room with the guys – it’s a lot of fun.”
At 32 years old, Haydar is a veteran of 10 seasons and 683 AHL games. His minor-league résumé includes two Calder Cup championships, an MVP award, a scoring title, four All-Star selections and a rookie-of-the-year award.
Not bad for a ninth-round draft pick who made sure to earn a degree in business administration from the University of New Hampshire in case his career in professional hockey never panned out.
“He’s got a great head for the game and real world-class hands,” Wolves coach Craig MacTavish said. “If he gets a chance, it’s usually in the back of the net.”
The chance to play in the NHL was what Haydar always wanted.
Technically, he got a chance. But it was short-lived.
IN A BLINK
Haydar scored his first NHL goal against one of the greatest goalies of all time, the New Jersey Devils’ Martin Brodeur.
It was Oct. 13, 2007, and Haydar was playing his second game of the season for the Atlanta Thrashers. He shared a line with Brett Sterling and Bryan Little, two players whom Haydar knew well from their days playing at Allstate Arena with the Wolves.
Sterling chipped the puck out of the Thrashers’ defensive zone and Little took control of the puck. Haydar joined Little on the offensive attack.
“We were going down on a 2-on-2,” Haydar said. “[Little] kind of cut in front of me, and I just pulled it in and shot it over Brodeur’s shoulder.”
Haydar’s celebration was subdued.
He raised his stick and made two quick pumps of his arms. Little was the first to congratulate him, and Ilya Kovalchuk arrived next with a glove-pat on his helmet.
“To be honest, I felt like it wasn’t going to be my only one,” Haydar said. “At the time, I was playing well and I was playing a decent amount of ice time for the first six or eight games that I was there.
“It’s just the nature of the business that someone got healthy and I kind of got pushed down, and then I started playing limited minutes, and I’m not a fourth-line guy, so they told me they didn’t want me playing on their fourth line.
“And then from there, it’s an uphill battle again to try and get that next opportunity.”
The opportunity never arrived in full.
After the 2007-08 season, Haydar appeared in one more NHL game. He logged 5:22 of ice time for the Colorado Avalanche in a 4-3 overtime win against his former team, the Thrashers, on Feb. 10, 2010.
“I look back on that as a great time, but I know I can play at that level,” Haydar said. “I’ve got tons of friends in the National Hockey League that I’ve played with and against, and my stats have done equally or better than them.
“I’m not a fast skater, so I think that’s the catch. And I’m a smaller guy. Nowadays, smaller guys get a better opportunity than they did when I first started playing.
“And the game has changed: It’s become faster, and that’s the reality of it. I can go through the rest of my life being bitter about it, but it is what it is.”
Instead of dwelling on his brief NHL stint, Haydar savors his AHL successes.
The 5-foot-10, 171-pound winger is second on the Wolves this season with 39 points (12 G, 27 A) in 44 games. As one of the Wolves’ veteran players, he also frequently has been the point person for team-organized charities.
Recently, Haydar wore jerseys that were auctioned for “cancer survivors week.” The cause was close to his heart because his wife, Sara, has battled throat cancer.
Sara Haydar received her first negative biopsy in April 2009, but five years must pass before her cancer will be considered to be in remission. Just as Darren helped her throughout her hardest days, she has supported his career without hesitation.
“I’m really proud of him,” said Sara Haydar, a McHenry native who met Haydar when she was a nursing student in Milwaukee. “He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal, and he definitely keeps me positive.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m more angry about his [brief time in the NHL] than he is. But he’s always like, ‘It is what it is. You’ve just got to roll with it and make the best of it.’ ”
It’s the only approach Haydar knows.
He mentors younger teammates while Sara helps wives of new players acclimate to the area. When he travels to play road games in cities such as Abbottsford, British Columbia, and Rochester, N.Y., Sara hosts parties to watch Wolves games on TV.
The routine often is challenging but always worthwhile.
“He’s 32 and he’s still living his dream,” Sara Haydar said. “He loves playing hockey, and he loves being a leader. A lot of the guys come to him for advice about their own careers. He’s like a therapist or a big brother to so many guys.”
Haydar’s career is a long way from finished. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of 36-year-old teammate Nolan Baumgartner and play in his 1,000th professional game some day.
Haydar has two Calder Cup rings and plenty of fingers remaining to add championship jewelry.
“The ultimate goal is [to return to the NHL], but I think for me, my window is closing,” Haydar said. “I think I’m a realist.
“So for me, the goal is to win a Calder Cup and at the end of the day to have the Cup here in Chicago, to bring it back to the fans and my teammates here in Chicago.”
And to keep wearing hockey skates instead of dress shoes for as long as possible.