Moved by teammate's death, former Blackhawk Carcillo aims to help others
Never one to check his phone before a game, Daniel Carcillo knew something was horrendously wrong when it wouldn't stop buzzing.
Sitting at his dressing room stall at the United Center, the Blackhawks winger finally relented and took a call that would change Carcillo forever -- his good friend Steve Montador was dead at 35.
"Missy (Steve's good friend) was freaking out and said he was gone," Carcillo said. "Put the phone down, tried to regroup, got my skates on and started crying. While I was out for warmups I started crying. I got off the ice, walked into (Joel Quenneville's) office, he gave me a hug and that was it."
Well, not quite.
In the days, weeks and months to follow Montador's death on Feb. 15, 2015, Carcillo did his best to hold it together, all the while getting support from every teammate who knew how close he was to Montador.
Two years later, Carcillo is honoring his buddy by running Chapter 5, a nonprofit foundation to help retired NHL players make a smooth transition to the next phase of their lives. It is named for Montador, who wore No. 5 with the Hawks.
Former Blackhawks Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Ed Olczyk, and Troy Murray spoke with the Daily Herald about the challenges NHL players face after retiring from the game.
- PATRICK KUNZER/Daily Herald photo illustration
The day he met Steve Montador, Daniel Carcillo knew they would hit it off.
"I was just drawn to him," Carcillo said. "The way he carried himself, how confident he was, how happy he was, his laugh. People wanted to be around him."
Carcillo and Montador signed deals with the Hawks just three days apart in the summer of 2011. Carcillo, who had played the previous two-plus seasons in Philadelphia, had been sober for about six months when he arrived in Chicago to join the Blackhawks. He was absolutely thrilled to meet a new teammate who didn't drink and also shared his passion for restaurants, exploring, music, meditation and spirituality.
"I like learning from people who know more than me, and he knew how to live a happy life without drinking and smoking," Carcillo said. "He helped me through an uncomfortable period. We could be together when everyone else was drinking, but still be with the team. For me to feel comfortable was great."
Montador played 52 games for the Hawks in 2011-12 and retired after playing 11 games in the KHL in 2013. He suffered more than a dozen documented concussions during a career that saw him engage in 69 fights in the NHL, according to hockeyfights.com.
Not long before his death, Montador arranged for his brain to be examined. When the results came back, the autopsy revealed the widespread presence of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, throughout his brain.
Although the cause of Montador's death has never been made public, Carcillo is convinced his friend would be alive had there been programs like Chapter 5 in place to help.
After becoming teammates on the Blackhawks, Steve Montador and Daniel Carcillo quickly became good friends.
- Courtesy of Daniel Carcillo
'Doing the right thing'
Carcillo also understands there's not a lot of empathy for retired athletes who have made millions of dollars.
"I get it," he said. "The public sees the money thing."
What they don't see is what the hockey player's life is like from a very young age. Most move away by age 15 or 16 to live with a host family. Meals, practices, school, games, long bus rides -- they are all part of a set schedule. Year after year after year.
"There's no real need to think about planning your day," Carcillo said. "Your job is your body and your performance when you get on the ice. … Then at 19 you're in a professional locker room with guys who have kids. You grow up really, really quickly.
"In many ways, I'm still a 16-year-old kid. I never developed the same way."
Then one day -- bam -- it's all over. For many, the end comes with little or no warning as teams don't want you anymore, or a nagging injury just won't let you back on the ice.
Others drift into the minors or go overseas for a year or two, doing whatever they can to hang on a little while longer.
Plenty of former players move seamlessly into a new career. Laying the groundwork early is crucial, and that's what 37-year-old Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell has been doing for some time.
"The leagues could always do more, but there's also got to be a little emphasis on the player," Campbell said. "What you do, how you act, setting yourself up, making connections and networking yourself a little bit, too.
"You've got to really be smart about it, even when you're in your 20s playing, because you never know when it's going to end."
However, some Hawks -- including 30-somethings Andrew Desjardins, Michal Rozsival, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook -- admit they're not sure what they'll do when their NHL career ends.
"There's got to be something else coming, right?" Rozsival said. "Like you can't just be sitting at home watching TV for the next 30 years. But at this point, I really have no definite plan of what it is."
That's where Carcillo hopes Chapter 5 can step in and give much-needed direction to so many retirees who will need it.
And, yes, Carcillo says, the public should care.
"We're a consumable product. And who consumed us? You did," Carcillo said. "So that's why you should care. If treatment doesn't get better and if transitions don't get better, mothers and fathers will lose their sons at 35. It will continue to happen.
"Just think of it that way. Think of it as a human thing. Strictly doing the right thing for someone that is sacrificing so much. Yes, they get compensated; that's why they get compensated. It's a lifetime of sacrifice, and it continues to be."
For Carcillo, that sacrifice has meant tears in his ankles, arthritis in his knees, a lost PCL, no labrum in his left shoulder, and losing three teeth.
"I would love to get a diagnostic report of all the guys that come out of the league," Carcillo said. "Don't put their name on it and print it on my website. And say, 'Here -- this is the sacrifice.'"
Steve Montador, left, and Daniel Carcillo had a lot in common on and off the ice.
- Courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks
Carcillo said Chapter 5 already has helped three recent retirees get on the right path when it appeared they might be headed for disaster.
Brent Sopel is one former player who would have benefited from the nonprofit group's outreach. Sopel, who won a Cup with the Hawks in 2010 and played his last pro season for the Chicago Wolves in 2014-15, published a heart-wrenching article through the Players' Tribune in early March.
"When the time came for me to finally hang up my skates, I couldn't deal with it," said Sopel, who had undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia. "To have that door slammed in my face -- to just be kicked out into the real world … I didn't know how to take it. … My life was going a million miles an hour. I was drinking to mask my pain.
"When you strip down a man to just his mind, you see who he really is. I saw who I really was.
"I grew apart from those closest to me. My wife and I divorced. I felt as though I couldn't explain myself. I didn't have a purpose, a skill set to hide behind. I questioned myself. Who was I? How had this charmed life that I thought I had suddenly become so fragile, so hollow and so messed up?"
Carcillo, who runs chapter5foundation.com with his wife, Ela, and former Blackhawks player Ben Eager, wants to reach guys before they reach this stage, so he is developing a website that allows members to seek the help they need through various avenues.
• Struggling with a concussion or the mental side of retirement? There will be a "training room" for physical therapy and psychologists to help.
• Want to talk to other retired players in the area? Their contact info will be readily available.
• Have an interest in real estate or being an entrepreneur? Experts can be reached and spoken to in a live classroom.
"We're just trying to build a community where guys like us can go -- when we're out and we're a little edgy -- let's sit down, let's talk and make a plan of attack," Carcillo said.
Carcillo struggled mightily in his first year retirement, but he finally found a purpose when he was asked to coach Team Illinois, a 15-and-under youth team. He brought Eager on board, and the two had a blast.
They also are running a rink together in Glenview, and both are putting extra time into making Chapter 5 everything it can be so fewer and fewer NHL alums succumb to struggles.
In the end, though, Carcillo said "you need to do it for yourself. I hate saying that, but hockey guys can handle hearing that. At the end of the day, get out of that victim mentality and just know who you are and what you can bring to the table.
"Me and Ben have a Ph.D. in hockey. Why not use that right now?"
Said Eager: "From what I find, hockey players like being around hockey players, so Chapter 5 is great. I feel like it's a big family."
About this seriesToday: Why Daniel Carcillo began Chapter 5 and how the nonprofit organization helps retired and retiring players.
Monday: Observations from NHL players nearing retirement and those already experiencing the "real world."
Tuesday: After struggling for more than a year, former Blackhawks players Daniel Carcillo and Ben Eager find a new purpose and passion as youth hockey coaches.