Hometown hero comes full circle by suiting up for the Habs

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Officially, the game between the Montreal Canadiens and the St. Louis Blues on January 20 was the 102nd of Mathieu Darche’s 10-year professional career. But in many ways it felt a lot like his first.

On that cold Wednesday night, Darche played his first game for the Canadiens – the team he idolized while growing up in St. Laurent, Quebec – in front of a raucous crowd at the Bell Centre. In doing so, he became the first McGill graduate to dress for the Habs in over 72 years.

“The first time I heard them say, ‘Accueillons nos Canadiens’ I got goosebumps,” said Darche. “[Canadiens’ Head Coach] Jacques Martin put me in the starting lineup and I was in a bit of a daze for the first few shifts. It felt special, a lot like it was my first game.”

Although he didn’t register a point in his first appearance, Darche has impressed the coaching staff enough to remain on the Habs’ roster for 13 games to date. For the journeyman forward, who has spent his entire career bouncing between the NHL and the minor leagues, it’s only the third time he has played more than 10 games in the NHL in a single season.

“I’ve learned to never take anything for granted,” said Darche. “Even though things have gone well, I know I’ve got to prove myself every day I’m here.”

Darche is certainly no stranger to criticism – he has had to prove himself to the doubters ever since his time as a member of the McGill Redmen. McGill had not produced an NHL player in nearly 50 years before Darche played his first NHL game in 2000. In over 100 years of Canadian university hockey, only 158 Canadian university players have made the leap to the NHL, as scouts focus most of their attention on prospects playing in the Canadian Hockey League or for American university teams.

While Darche hopes that he has drawn some attention to the quality of play in the CIS, he admits that he likely wouldn’t have attended McGill if he had wanted to seriously pursue a career in the NHL.

“I never thought I’d play professional hockey,” said Darche. “It wasn’t until my senior year that it became a possibility. I picked McGill because it was a great school, because my brother [J.P. Darche] was already [attending McGill], and because they offered me the chance to play both football and hockey.”

The chance to play on the same football team as his brother was too enticing an opportunity for Darche to turn down. Both Darche brothers were talented linebackers – J.P. would go on to play as a long snapper for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL – and played side-by-side in Mathieu’s freshman year. But Darche struggled to make the transition to varsity hockey in the winter semester. The 238-pounds he packed onto his 6’1″ frame made him too heavy and slow to play hockey at a high level. After notching only one point in his first season with the hockey team, Darche decided to quit football and slim down to 228 pounds. The next season his point totals began to steadily climb above a point-per-game pace.

“J.P. is pretty much my best friend,” said Darche. “We’re each other’s biggest fan, and we’re both really proud of the fact that we made it professionally in our chosen sport – even though neither of us had the intention to make a career out of playing sports.”

As Darche blossomed into an offensive powerhouse during his fourth year at McGill – he finished his final season with 62 points in 26 games – scouts began to take notice. By the end of the year, eight NHL teams made offers to Darche. He ultimately decided that signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets – an expansion team entering their first season – would give him the best chance to earn a place on an NHL roster.

But success at the NHL level has been elusive for Darche. He played 24 games over three seasons with the Blue Jackets, and has subsequently spent time on the rosters of four NHL and six AHL teams – despite leading each of those AHL teams in goal scoring. Darche’s best NHL season came in 2007-08 when he scored 22 points in 73 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“It’s hard to break in, no matter how well you do in the AHL,” said Darche. “You sign with teams as a free agent in training camp, but a lot of them already have their lines set, and you’re competing against first-round picks or guys with million-dollar contracts. But I love playing, so I just had to keep working hard at it.”

Despite the difficult travel schedule in the AHL and the constant uprooting of his family – the 33-year-old Darche is married with young children – the McGill product doesn’t regret his decision to pursue a career in hockey.

“Sure, it’s been tough at times,” said Darche. “But I’m so lucky to have a job that I love. To have graduated from McGill and have made it into the Habs organization is something I’m incredibly proud of.”