The NHL Redux: Steve Montador - one final hard hat
In October of 1999, seven-year-old Adam Babcock won a contest through the local paper to lead his hometown Peterborough Petes onto the ice.
Try as he might, Adam couldn't quite keep pace as the players weaved, dipped and whirled around ahead of the anthem. But before concern could set in, he was taken by the hand and whisked away to his rightful position on the blue line.
There, in a moment of fate, Adam turned with his eyes wide and gazed up at a figure who would change his life forever.
In the coming months, that charming, charismatic defenseman acquired in a trade with the Erie Otters would need a billet home. Of course, Adam wouldn't have it any other way.
Shortly thereafter, he moved in with the Babcocks to play out the final few months of the season.
Thing is, he never left.
Steve Montador died early Sunday morning at the age of 35. His passing rocked the hockey sphere, left a legion of friends and former teammates mourning and broke the heart of a family in Peterborough, Ont.
"When we had him, when he was living with us, when he became a part of our family, it was stronger," Mary Babcock told theScore as she fought off tears.
"We were so fortunate to take the call to be a billet that day because if we didn't, we would have never known him."
In just a few short months, their lives became fully intertwined. From playing rebound hockey in the driveway with Adam, to having the TV remote hidden in the freezer by their young daughter, Montador developed an ingenuous, organic and everlasting bond with the family.
He gave them everything he had and in return, they gave him a rock and the "kick in the ass" Mary admits he needed sometimes.
Every winter, hockey pulled him away, but the sense of family shared with Montador would always bring him back to Peterborough, where he would roll up his sleeves with the rest of them when work needed to be done.
"It didn't matter how much money he was making, where he was or what he was doing in his life, he came back here all the time," Mary's husband Terry said. "Just to have him do it time after time, it showed how he supported us as much as we supported him."
Montador's relationship with his de facto father was especially meaningful. It flourished to the point that after more than 10 years in the NHL, he made Terry his guest for the Chicago Blackhawks' father-son road trip in 2011-12 - his final season in the league.
In turn, Adam bestowed a similar respect and admiration unto Montador, a mentor the Babcocks credit for helping shape their impressionable boy into the successful, motivated young man he has become.
"Adam saw that (Montador) wasn't drafted into the NHL, and that he went to a tryout and just worked his way onto a team from the AHL," Terry said. "He saw him go to the Stanley Cup. He saw that if you really want something, you can get it. You just have to work for it."
Montador's impact, of course, wasn't limited to the four walls of that home in Peterborough, nor was it exclusive to the dressing rooms he inhabited in his journey through hockey. He seemed to affect everyone he crossed paths with in a deep, profound manner.
It's an influence that has proven to extend even beyond those he came into direct contact with.
In 2004, Montador played for the Calgary Flames, a ragtag group led by an elite sniper and top-class goaltender who were able to extract the best from themselves and each other to come within a goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
Among the traditions in their fun-loving dressing room was the green hard hat, which was handed out to the hardest-working player or unsung hero after every win. Craig Conroy is credited for introducing it, but as his family and former teammates will attest, Montador played a key role in implementing the process to keep spirits high.
Now, whether it's a beaten-up Starter jacket, a fireman helmet or a fedora, the post-game tradition of celebrating the efforts of a teammate who went to battle that night is a staple in dressing rooms everywhere. Hell, even my beer league team passes around a yellow construction helmet.
That was Montador to the letter.
Short on talent but resolute tough, Montador epitomizes what the hard hat represents, but unfortunately, it also encapsulates what he missed most in life after hockey.
"The camaraderie, the friendships," Mary said. "He was able to motivate people. He made a difference. If you're not on a team anymore and you're by yourself, who do you motivate? How do you get people inspired?"
"He wanted to be at the rink. He was usually the first one there and last to leave," Terry added. "There was something to strive for in being around the guys, being a part of the team. But after he was done, it was all gone.
In hockey, "journeyman" is a simple way to classify veteran players with a negative undertone, but anything more would be a disservice to Montador. He was brought to this world to be a teammate, to touch the lives of many and to share his "sweet soul," as Mary says, with the world.
In the coming days, weeks or months, Adam, now 22, will reach into his hockey bag and be reminded of the iconic Pete who was taken from this world far too early.
For there lies the gloves big brother wore in the Stanley Cup Final five years after he was first taken by the hand.
The Redux will return in full next week.
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