VANCOUVER – Nearly four years since his last appearance in the National Hockey League, Darren Archibald’s career seemed to be at a crossroads.
Seven years as an undrafted pro, 356 games in the American Hockey League and another 75 in the East Coast League, numerous injuries including a fractured cheekbone last fall, and here was Archibald, about to turn 28, playing for the Utica Comets on a minor-league contract.
This was not the career the winger from Newmarket, Ont., envisioned for himself when he finally earned a professional contract from the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 as a free agent out of the Ontario Hockey League.
During the AHL all-star break in late January, a moment of clarity came to Archibald.
He should get married.
Archibald proposed to his girlfriend, Lindsay Yannacacos, who is in university back in Toronto.
“First the engagement, then the contract,” Archibald says, sitting in the Canucks’ dressing room and marvelling at his good fortune. “And it was my 28th birthday the day I played my first game (back in the NHL). It’s definitely been an exciting time.”
It still is.
Five games into the rest of his life, Archibald is averaging 14 minutes of ice time for the Canucks, who after another wave of injuries on their last road trip rushed to sign Archibald to an NHL contract and put him in their lineup Feb. 9 in Carolina.
That was 1,431 days since his last NHL game for John Tortorella, who ran the Canucks in 2013-14, two coaches ago.
“It seems like a long time ago,” Archibald says. “It’s been a long haul. I just tried to stay positive.
“It was always my main goal to get back. I had injuries for a couple of years. I couldn’t even get a good summer of training in. I even had another cup of tea back in Kalamazoo in the East Coast League. But I always stayed hungry and focussed. Going last year back to Utica on an AHL deal, needing an invite to go to training camp (with the Canucks), I knew this had to be a breakout year to try to put my name back on the map.”
Archibald is putting his stamp on opponents. He has 16 hits in his five games and a slobber-knocker Saturday on Boston Bruin defenceman Brandon Carlo led to Archibald’s second fight. The Canucks beat the Bruins 6-1.
He is providing the Canucks the physical presence and forechecking menace they have missed since Derek Dorsett was forced by back injuries to abruptly retire in November.
But, like Dorsett, Archibald has earned the trust of Canuck coach Travis Green, who is deploying the six-foot-three winger alongside Brandon Sutter on Vancouver’s shutdown line. It is difficult to reconcile this smart, purposeful mobile version of Archibald with the one who had three stints on Tortorella’s fourth line and averaged just 7:47 of ice time over 16 NHL games four seasons ago.
“He’s a guy that’s worked hard on his game,” Green says. “It says a lot about him — perseverance, sticking with it. You give him credit. He’s come a long way. His game has really developed on the ice and off the ice as a professional.
“It really shows you that you have to be real careful in deciding on a player too early. But you also can’t hang on to a player forever. It’s a fine line. Those aren’t always easy decisions to make.”
Green knows because for the last four seasons he was the coach in Utica who could see Archibald’s potential to become a better player, maybe even an NHL player.
“I‘ve been with Arch a long time, in lots of different situations, different types of games that he has brought to the table,” Green said. “Some ups and downs. To see where he has come, it’s refreshing. He started to learn the game. . . really understand the game more like a veteran player does, which enabled him to kill penalties. And not just on the ice. We had talks about: How does he bring it every night? And not one on, one off. And that was physically, with his skating, because he’s a big guy and there were nights where he just couldn’t get there.”
Archibald’s skating, like his game, like his life, has evolved.
Archibald says he was watching television on a day off in Utica when his agent, Anton Thun, called him two weeks ago and asked: “Are you ready to go back to the NHL?” He says he phoned his fiancée and parents. It was emotional.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Archibald says. “My first sniff in the NHL (four years ago), mentally I don’t think I was as consistent as I needed to be. It seems like forever ago. To be back here now is an amazing feeling.
“I owe a lot to Greener over the years. There’s definitely no room for complacency. Me being a big, physical guy, I’ve got to be noticeable on the ice every night. I’ve got to bring that physicality that our team needs. There’s no taking my foot off the gas. I’m back here, but I want to stay this time.”