Carcillo wants to make a difference for players

Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Daniel Carcillo has always been driven by his instincts.

Sometimes those instincts have benefited him, and sometimes they haven't. But he's never been one to stop to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, as shown by his many fines and suspensions and a style of play that earned him the nickname Car Bomb.

But after a career of living in the present, the Chicago Blackhawks forward now finds himself more concerned with what's ahead of him.

Carcillo has been confronted about his future with seemingly every turn this season. His first child was born. He turned 30. He was cut during training camp and remained unsigned until joining the Blackhawks late in the preseason. He's watched the gradual subtraction of enforcers from the game. He suffered his second documented concussion in March. And his close friend and former teammate Steve Montador died.

Concussions drove Montador out of hockey and sent him into an emotional tailspin. Carcillo was going through his own emotional roller coaster between the concussion and Montador's passing. He missed his friend and couldn't help but think something more could have been done for him.

On April 22, Carcillo expressed his feelings in a video on the website The Players' Tribune. In it, he spoke emotionally about what Montador meant to him, his own experiences with concussions and how he truly believed NHL players needed more post-career guidance.

The day the video was posted, Carcillo felt a sense of relief because he had put his message out into the world, but he fully anticipated criticism. It never came. He was instead overwhelmed with positive feedback through phone calls, text messages and social media. The support reaffirmed he had done the right thing.

"I think a lot of guys in this league or athletes in general are just scared to go against what the common thinking is," Carcillo said. "Or if they don't see something that's right, it's hard to speak up and not be worried and, 'Oh boy, I don't know if I'm going to get a job next year or I don't know if [this is] going to piss people off.' I wasn't trying to piss anybody off. The only thing I was trying to do was pass along my friend's message that we had talked about for so long and then kind of go from there."

Carcillo's intention was to start a conversation. What it led to in less than a month has taken him by surprise. He thought there was a chance past and present NHL players would contact him, but he never expected other professional athletes to reach out to him. He's discovered there's a desire by athletes from all sports to be assisted in the next phase of their lives.

Now Carcillo is even more motivated to facilitate change. He began the process this week of setting up a nonprofit organization to help guide athletes, which will be called Chapter 5.

"I wouldn't have done that video if there was something in place, obviously if Steve didn't pass away, there's so many factors that happened," Carcillo said. "It just felt like the right thing to do. I'm a big believer in signs and kind of following them, and everything pointed to that direction."

An immediate friendship

Carcillo was intrigued by Montador when they first met nearly 10 years ago during a taping of "Off the Record," a sports-issues TV show on Canada's TSN.

Their paths would cross again as teammates on the Blackhawks in the 2011-12 season. It didn't take long for them to realize they had a lot in common.

"We were immediately [friends]," Carcillo said. "We started hanging out, drawn to each other. We were just interested in the same things away from hockey, which is kind of to better ourselves as human beings. We were into spirituality and talking about that, and there's not a lot of guys you can talk to about that and have a deep conversation like that without getting weird.

"You always knew when you were talking to Monty he cared what you were saying, you know. It's hard to put into words what he meant to me, our friendship. We were just open with each other. ... We had been through a lot of the same things. We just leaned on each other for support. I was kind of going through a new period in my life. He helped me navigate through that."

Carcillo's new period of life was sobriety. He had lived that Car Bomb lifestyle off the ice and had decided to abandon it after his final season with the Philadelphia Flyers. When he joined the Blackhawks for the 2011-12 season, Carcillo lucked upon a perfect mentor at a perfect time.

"When you live that [sober] lifestyle, it's always nice to have somebody living that same lifestyle as you because this [NHL] lifestyle is so fast-paced," Carcillo said. "You're up, you're down. It's difficult to stay on track when you're alone and you don't have anybody you're taking care of other than yourself. You're bored, and you can lose yourself. Monty helped me find myself again when I got here and just made me comfortable in my own skin and helped me take my power back. I was just in a tough place in my life in Philly, and when I got here I just wanted something different, and Monty helped me find that and happiness. I owed him a lot of it."

During that season, Montador suffered a concussion in February 2012 and missed 22 games. He played just 4 minutes, 20 seconds in one more game in March that season. He didn't play in the NHL again. The Blackhawks bought out the final two years of his contract after the 2012-13 season. He signed to play in the KHL during the 2013-14 season but didn't last long because concussion symptoms returned.

In the early hours of Feb. 15, 2015, Montador was found unconscious in his home in Mississauga, Ontario, and was later pronounced dead. He was 35.

Transitioning out of the game

Hockey players know what they're supposed to be doing at any given time. If it's the offseason, they rest and then train for the following season. If it's during the season, their hour-to-hour schedule, including when to nap, is pretty much laid out for them.

But after hockey players retire, their schedules become completely theirs. With most players retire in their 30s, which leaves a lot of free time for years to come. Sure, some might be rich, but life is about more than that to most people.

"It has nothing to do with money," Carcillo said. "You can have millions and millions of dollars in the bank. If you don't have a purpose in life and you don't know what you're going to do next, you're going to be lost. You can travel the world. You're going to go crazy eventually.

"You need something whether that be once a month or twice a week or a part-time job, a full-time job. You know guys need a purpose, and if you don't have a purpose, like I watched Steve search around for a year and a half for what he wanted to do. It didn't really seem like he had much help."

That's where Carcillo seeks change. His nonprofit organization is one way to do so, but he's also working with the NHL Players' Association.

Former player Mathieu Schneider, now the NHLPA's special assistant to the executive director, watched Carcillo's video and immediately posted it to a players-only website.

"The truth of the matter is when I saw Dan's video ... there was a big part of me that said, 'This is great, finally, it's bringing some recognition and some notice to a problem,'" Schneider said by phone from Prague on Thursday. "Not only in hockey, but many sports where athletes are identified with their sport, and athletes identify themselves with a sport. When you ask a hockey player, 'How do you define yourself?' Hockey player, hands down."

Schneider and the NHLPA have been working on creating a transition program the past few years. Close to 100 players have returned surveys about a potential program, and about 25 players took part in longer in-person and phone interviews. The NHLPA will further discuss the program at the NHLPA's board meetings in June and plans to implement it next season.

"There's some guys now starting to recognize [that the] things that make them successful on the ice can make them successful in other areas as well," Schneider said. "It's OK to be working on a second career while you're still playing. There's some guys that recognize that. I think a majority don't.

"I think in the past, a lot of times those things were frowned about. Basically, it was from management on down, you want to be playing hockey; you don't want to be worrying about anything. Get on the ice and do your job. Worry about everything else when you're done with your career. I think that mentality has failed in a lot of ways."

Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp turned 33 in December and still feels he has a good number of years left, but he's also realistic about his future.

"As I get older, definitely you start to think about what's going to happen when the playing career ends, because I can tell you when you're playing, when you're coming to the rink every day, you feel like it's going to last forever," Sharp said. "You feel like that's what you're going to do. But it ends for everybody and what's the next step? That's the question. [Carcillo] brings up a lot of good points talking to the PA and former players. We need to build a support system for each other and kind of help each other out."

Jamal Mayers faced that reality when he retired in 2013 after playing 15 seasons in the NHL and didn't even receive a phone call from the NHLPA about his post-career life. He believes the onus is on the player and the players' association to improve the situation.

"The PA, they're kind of in a juxtaposition of how do they support the retired players when their focus should be on the current player," said Mayers, who has been working as an analyst for the NHL Network and Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "The answer to me is pretty simple: Eventually those current players become retired players; they need to make a program to help them."

It's a sentiment shared around the league. Players believe it's vital to look out for other players during and after their careers.

"I think it's important," Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise said. "We play a physical sport. There's a lot of things individually that people have to deal with. I think it's important for us to stick together while we're playing, but also after we're playing, to make sure everyone's taken care of."

Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks' captain, also thinks Carcillo is leading an important discussion.

"I think with everything that Car Bomb's been doing the last little while, it takes a tremendous amount of courage for him to step up and talk the way he has," Toews said, "because not a lot of guys want to or think they can do that."

Impact of playing

Carcillo spoke one word in his video on The Players' Tribune that isn't often spoken inside NHL locker rooms: concussion.

"It's almost a very taboo thing," Carcillo said. "Guys don't like to talk about it. I think it has a lot do with how much pride we have as men and as athletes. You don't talk about when you're hurt. But I think as you see more and more, guys with the NFL and the lawsuits and the NHL and the lawsuits, it's obviously society in a way is kind of bringing it to a head with all the information you can now gain through research and what they know more."

Montador donated his brain to science to further that research, which has focused on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition resulting from trauma like multiple concussions. On Tuesday, the Krembil Neuroscience Centre's Canadian Sports Concussion Project reported that Montador's autopsy results revealed "the widespread presence of CTE throughout his brain. Prior to his death, Montador suffered from depression, erratic behavior and problems with his memory."

The report confirmed what Carcillo witnessed happening to his friend.

"I saw firsthand the deterioration," Carcillo said. "There was obviously something going on. A lot of people want to bring up the alcohol and drug abuse and pin it on that, but obviously with that report that was not what was happening. You could see something was going on with his brain other than him falling in and out of sobriety.

"It's pretty alarming. It kind of makes you upset. Nobody ever told me that playing this game, nobody warned me I could end up with CTE with the head traumas and the head hits. It would be nice if you knew the full depth of what you're getting into. We really don't. I think the video was more bringing awareness to this."

The video has been seen nearly 300,000 times, and other NHL players can be included in that count.

"I think everyone has seen the video," Washington Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. "It was pretty heartfelt. Not just in the NHL or in hockey, but I don't think we do enough for people with mental illness. It's a hard topic for people to discuss."

The next chapter

Carcillo wasn't so sure a few months ago what lay ahead of him after his playing days. Now, ironically, he might have discovered his second career by helping others discover theirs. It's something he described as being a "savior" to him.

"I'm sure I can find a job playing in hockey somewhere else," Carcillo said. "I just feel like this is a much more important issue than me grinding it out another three, four years. So yeah, I found a kind of a calling, you can say. If I could build something in any way close to what me and Monty envisioned, it could be really, really awesome. It could help a lot of people. That's the biggest thing."

Paul Montador, Steve's father, is working on developing his own program to help players after retirement. Paul knew the bond Carcillo and Steve had and was glad to see Carcillo speak publicly about the issues.

"It took a lot of moxie to do that," Paul said by phone on Thursday. "That's something I believe a lot of guys had been thinking. I think it took a lot of moxie to stand up and say that. I know he and my son spoke about that on numerous occasions. I completely support what Daniel is trying to do here."

Carcillo realizes his playing days will be coming to an end in the near future. But life without hockey no longer scares him. He's optimistic about the path he's headed down.

"I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel," Carcillo said. "I know I'm not going to be around much longer, whether that be next year or the year after or five years, who knows. But my hope is when my son grows up and when Monty's kid grows up, or even two, three, four years, it'll help somebody down the road. Hopefully, I'll be able to be involved in it in some capacity and help it grow."