Late Sunday morning, I was checking Twitter before lunch and saw a post from TVA Reporter Renaud Lavoie that stopped me in my tracks. “It is with sadness that I just learned of the passing of Steve Montador.”
I stopped right there.
I was speechless. I immediately told my wife. She had a devastated look on her face. She told me Steve had just updated a Facebook picture a day or so before on his page. I called one of our former players and teammates of Steve to see if they had heard the story. Word had spread quickly and I started to receive messages to see if I knew anything.
My mind immediately flashed back to July 1, 2009. We had just announced that Steve had signed with our club as a free agent. I remember calling him on the phone to introduce myself and welcome him to the team. I vividly remember at the end of our conversation him saying, “I’ll tell you this right off the hop man: I’m going to ask you for a lot of stuff, but I’ll always be there when you need me for anything. Deal? Thanks brother, see you in a few weeks.” I remember thinking, ‘oh wonderful!’
Sure enough, about two weeks before training camp, I went into the practice rink where a bunch of the players were skating getting ready for the season. I walked into the locker room to say hi to a few players and this guy come up to me with floppy, messy hair, scruffy face and tattoos on his chest and arms. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Chris, I’m Steve. We need to talk.”
Steve went on to tell me in great detail about a few charities he was working with over the summer that needed some help with. This would be the first of many “talks” we would have. “Talks” would mean that he needed something for this person or “I gave your number to this guy or girl that is going to call you.” It was all to help others and it never bothered me. When Steve would talk about a charity like Right to Play or just going to visit a hospital, he would get that look in his eye and that smirk on his face.
Over the next few years, I would have the honor and privilege of working with Steve. He was a very charismatic person that would grab your attention from the moment you said hello or good morning. He had such a passion for the game, and for life in general. Steve loved telling stories of guys he played with or places he had been.
But the one thing that always made him smile more than ever was when he was speaking about helping other people. As our team had its ups and downs, Monty stayed true to his words. Wins or losses, great games or a healthy scratch, Steve would always say, “Need me in the room tonight?”
My thoughts turned to one night after a home game in the middle of Steve’s second season with the Sabres. It was a tough loss and Steve had a crucial turnover that led to the winning goal. After the game, I reminded him there was a young fan battling an illness that was going to be visiting our locker room, and asked if he wouldn’t mind saying hi to them. Upset and heartbroken five minutes earlier answering media questions, Steve immediately said to me with a smile, “What’s her name? I want to make sure I say hi to her and spell her name right on the stick I want to give her. And by the way, can you ask Willie (Equipment manager Dave Williams) for a stick? He will kill me if I ask him for another one! He won’t kill you.”
So he got showered and sure enough sat down at his stall with the girl. Steve asked her about her family, her favorite things and how she was doing. He spent what seemed like a half hour with her. The next morning I said to him how much I appreciated that he took a few minutes to spend with our guest the night before. He said to me “Bando, there’s one thing I know brother - always try to find time for others when you can, because you never know what that time will mean to them.”
I finally thought about the last time I saw Steve. I was in NYC for the annual NHL Media Tour in September. I was at the NHL Store looking at t-shirts for my kids when someone grabbed my arm from behind and said “Bando, you better call Kim because you have absolutely no clue what sizes your kids wear!” I turned around and we gave each other a big hug, laughed and caught up for about 10 minutes.
We talked about a lot of things. I knew that Steve had gone through a lot over the past few years, as we would trade texts with each other every few months. We talked about family and the organization. Steve told me about how he was going to be a dad and how he was excited to get things planned out. Steve already knew a lot about my kids, and even shared a birthday with my son, Charlie, who was born in 2009. Steve always got a kick out of that. Ironically, Charlie played in his first ever hockey game over the weekend. He was given a jersey with the number four on it.
Anyone who spent time with Monty knew how much he would overthink things and sometimes tries to be coy about info. You knew that he told everyone the same things, but he would pretend that it was a big secret! I knew this would be no different, especially on things he cared about! I’ll never forget that last time we said goodbye to each other.
As I returned to the rink for our game on Sunday, we all shared stories. Some of the players had spoken to Monty less than 48 hours before his death. Shock, disbelief and sadness filled our minds and hearts. The one thing we will always have is the stories and memories we shared with him. As he was sometimes on his “own program,” I am honored that I had the opportunity to have spent a little bit of time in Monty’s world. Sometime he just did what he had to do.
I have not met many people that constantly wanted to learn and grow as a person as much as Monty did. At times he was all over the map, literally and figuratively, but that was him. “The most interesting man in the world” had nothing on Steve.
Steve had gone though alot, forged through and changed his life many times before. That’s what made the news of his passing so difficult to comprehend. He had battled through so much and was on his way to the next stage of his life. Steve cared so much. He was a true professional and a genuine person. When he spoke to you, he listened and was engaged in the conversation.
To his family, my thoughts and prayers go out to you. Please know the impact he made on all those that crossed his path. He was truly a unique man that loved, cared and respected people.
Steve was a proud man that left more of an impression on people than he ever knew. To mimic his words, I don’t think he knew how much the time he spent with us actually meant to us.