The death of former Chicago Blackhawks player Steve Montador has had ripples that continue to move throughout the hockey community, as Daniel Carcillo’s piece in the Players’ Tribune proved today.
The forward for the Chicago Blackhawks spoke on-camera about his personal friendship with Montador, who Carcillo refers to as Monty throughout the piece, and how Montador helped him get back to leading a normal life after Carcillo fought his own battles with addiction, much as Montador had.
“I met Steve Montador in Chicago in, I think it was, 2011. I had a couple surgeries and I had a problem after those surgeries with…I abused, you know, pills with my recovery and had a really hard time getting over it on my own. But Steve was a huge help in leading a sober life.
“Before I came to Chicago I had a reputation that I liked to have fun. I think that a lot of the guys were surprised when I got here that I said I wasn’t drinking anymore. I think it made it a lot easier for me knowing that Monty was here and was on the same program. You didn’t feel like you had to lie to him and say oh, ‘I’m doing okay,’ if you weren’t.”
The decision Carcillo made to show himself, an NHL tough guy, enforcer, even sometimes called a goon, tearing up on camera emphasizes the lengths Montador’s friends are willing to go for him, even after he’s gone. Professional sports have a pretty strict code of masculinity that, even while damaging, many players adhere to fiercely.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that NHL players need to cope with addiction, depression, or injury on their own, however. And they shouldn’t have to do so once they are no longer working in the league.
The point Carcillo made with his video and article was a familiar one: that if the NHLPA had a more comprehensive, helpful exit program for its retired players, Montador might still be here today. Carcillo writes,
When I rejoined the team after taking a few days off for Monty’s funeral, I couldn’t put what happened out of my mind. One night on the road, I started writing down my thoughts on Hilton hotel notepads. Why do NHL players struggle so much with moving on from the game? Why are so many former players I know battling depression? Why does the hockey community ignore them when they’re gone? And why can’t we create a more concrete program to help them transition into real life?
Reading between the lines, it appears that Montador’s decision to reach out to Carcillo made all the difference for his recovery, at least in regards to Carcillo’s role on the Blackhawks. But Montador had no such help after his concussions likely resulted in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Montador offered to donate his brain post-mortem to research on sports-related concussions in the hopes that it would lead to positive change in concussion treatment and for the league itself.
Matthieu Schneider, an NHL defenseman for 21 years, who ended his career with the Arizona Coyotes, similarly battled with concussion symptoms, and got to know Montador through his work with the NHLPA. “Obviously, it had a tremendous effect on his life,” Schneider told ESPN. “The players that do have those effects are extremely passionate about it, and he was certainly one of the most vocal. He was a leader.”
While Montador may have only received a phone call from his player’s union checking up on him as the extent of his exit program, players are mobilizing to ensure that this doesn’t happen any longer. Montador’s friendship was so valued that players even outside the NHL are speaking up on his behalf.
Hayley Wickenheiser, Canadian women’s hockey player, first woman to play for pay on a men’s team and Montador’s friend herself, wrote on the same topic on her Facebook page just a few days after attending Montador’s funeral.
I think the hardest thing for any athlete, pro or Olympic is the day it is over. Up to that point you were a valuable commodity, then suddenly overnight you are no longer a part of it. I have had teammates who were literally told ‘thanks we don’t want you anymore’ and guys have told me stories about being involved in conversations about trades and playoff runs in one instant and then being handed a garbage bag with their stuff and told ‘goodbye’ in the next. Their NHLPA email address is gone and if they want insurance from the NHL they can purchase it for a handsome fee.
[…]I don’t know why Steve passed away and I really don’t care. What I do know is that this was an amazing person who deserves to have his life and legacy serve a bigger purpose to help others down the road. Perhaps that purpose is to shine a light on the struggles that all athletes go through when they leave sport and leave the thing they loved the most. Yes they have more money and fame than most, but they are still people deep down with the same struggles as you or I every single day. This is what the public does not understand and this is what the NHL and the NHLPA need to get a handle on and continue to do more for the great warriors that give so much to the game and the fans.
It will be a failure to lose another athlete under similar circumstances as Steve. Lets hope that his death brings forward a shining light on the difficulty athletes face when they leave the game.
The question, at this point, is: what next? If Montador’s death can be a force for good, then calling attention to the lack of an exit program designed to truly support former NHL athletes is only the first step. Gathering support, designing and launching a program are the next. And while it may take time to realize this idea, that we’re seeing steps being taken is a positive.
Although a program like this should have been implemented years ago, at least athletes will have support to transition to what is more or less “civilian life” in the future.