Daren Puppa's native Kirland Lake has been to hockey what great soil has been to farmers, a fertile place with a history of healthy crops. Long after names like Duff, Backstrom, Walton, and Hillman had moved on to the NHL, Puppa stepped onto the ice and established a reputation as a talented youngster known primarily only by the locals.
And although the Belleville Bulls of the OHL drafted him, Puppa had his sites set on obtaining a scholarship with an American university. He eventually settled on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State where he attended classes and backstopped the school's hockey team from 1983 to 1985.
Having chosen an academic path, Puppa remained unknown to most scouts and to the Central Scouting Bureau of the NHL. His discovery occurred in 1983 when his father's cousin, former Montreal Canadiens star Ralph Backstrom, then the head coach of the University of Denver, had called Sabres' GM Scotty Bowman to inquire about a Swedish goaltender. During the conversation, Backstrom mentioned his disappointment about not having been able to entice Puppa to play in Denver. Bowman's ears immediately pricked up at the thought of a goaltending sleeper coming out of Kirkland Lake. In response, Bowman sent his scouting spies up into Ontario to get second, third and fourth opinions about his secret prospect. As the picture became clearer, Bowman had a hunch that Puppa was worth the risk. He drafted him, sight unseen in 1983.
With the Sabres, Puppa made an instant splash in his NHL debut, shutting out Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers 1-0. But the bigger challenge he faced was to wrestle the number-one stopper's post away from incumbent Tom Barrasso. That took three years of patient waiting.
He finally got the starting job in 1989-90. As a strong, stand-up goalie in the tradition of Ken Dryden, Puppa won 31 games and was runner-up to Patrick Roy in balloting for the Vezina Trophy. But over the three seasons that followed, Puppa struggled to regain his form.
In 1993, he was shipped to the Leafs where he played eight games before being claimed first by the Panthers and then by the Lightning in the Expansion Draft of 1993. Puppa assumed starting duties with Tampa Bay for his first three seasons. By year three, his strong goaltending began to reflect itself in the win/loss column as he racked up 29 wins, 19 losses, and nine ties, topped off by the Lightning's first trip to the playoffs in 1996.
But from that point on, a nagging back injury created havoc for Puppa. He managed to hang in with the club over the four seasons that followed but was able to appear in a total of only 50 games. He then hung up his pads for good in 1999-2000.