Still in mourning, Blackhawks inspired by Clint Reif, Steve Montador

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Blackhawks, old hands at this stuff now, playfully participated in all the usual absurdities of Media Day on Tuesday at Amalie Arena. Daniel Carcillo and David Rundblad did a joint selfie-stick interview with a guy in a Hawaiian shirt, players were asked about their second-favorite kind of cup (after Stanley, of course), Andrew Shaw ruminated on the quality of his playoff beard, and Jonathan Toews joked that he’d take questions in Spanish once he was done with English and French.

But as with everything they’ve done this season, there was an undercurrent of grief in all the festivities, a constant reminder of not just where the Hawks are, but who’s no longer here to share it with them. Clint Reif’s initials are stitched into Joel Quenneville’s warmup jacket. They’re emblazoned on the back of each player’s helmet. And they’re etched in the minds of everyone involved with the Hawks, from rookies to veterans, from the coaches’ room to the front office, from support staff to medical staff.

Reif’s death on Dec. 21, shortly after the team returned from a game in Columbus, hit the Hawks hard. And the loss of the team’s well-loved assistant equipment manager still resonates.

“You’re with these guys every day,” Brent Seabrook said. “Every day. You’re on the road with them. Whatever you need, they’re family, they’re there to take care of you. And part of our family is not around anymore. It’s pretty tough. Nobody loved this time of year more than he did.”

Reif’s death at age 34, and the death of former teammate Steve Montador at age 35 less than two months later, made this one of the most difficult seasons imaginable for the Hawks. Players still struggle to talk about it. Marcus Kruger’s voice was shaky as he tried to explain how the tragedies ended up bringing the team closer together. Niklas Hjalmarsson won’t discuss them publicly at all.

More than five months removed from Reif’s shocking death, some of the Hawks now acknowledge what was obvious at the time —that it affected them on the ice. They were numb at first, and went out and played an inspired game in a 4-0 victory over the Maple Leafs mere hours after getting the horrible news. Two nights later, they slogged through a dismal effort in a 5-1 loss to Winnipeg, the start of an 8-9 stretch. And after Montador’s death on Feb. 15, which most Hawks found out about minutes before playing a day game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they lost three straight. In fact, they didn’t win three games in a row again until mid-March, nearly three months after Reif’s death.

“It affects guys in different ways,” Brandon Saad said. “There’s no excuses, but anytime you go through something tough like that, it can affect you off the ice, and it sometimes creeps into your game on the ice.”

That they’ve made it to the sport’s biggest stage in the wake of such tragedy is a testament to the strength of the team’s leadership group, Joel Quenneville said. It’s also a testament to how important Reif was to the team, and how close the veterans were to Montador.

Reif’s name is etched on the Stanley Cup twice. The Hawks are doing their best to make sure it gets on there one more time.

“We felt like they were a big part of our lives and our hockey team,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s unfortunate, but at the same time you kind of have something to play for. Maybe if we do something special, you can dedicate it to someone and realize how important they were. … We realize [what] great guys those two were, and even though they’re gone, I still think they mean a lot to us today.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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