Blackhawks playing Winter Classic with heavy heart

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hushed voices. Tear-filled eyes. Hoarse throats.

The Chicago Blackhawks are still struggling to put words to the enormous amount of grief they’ve experienced in the wake of Clint Reif’s death, but there’s an undeniable feeling of loss around the team right now.

Watch Episode 4 of Road To the Winter Classic, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet Ontario. MORE: Winter Classic Live

A walk inside the visiting locker room at Nationals Park takes you past a stall carrying the name of the equipment manager who was found dead on Dec. 21 at age 34. The makeshift memorial was completely game-ready on Wednesday afternoon with one of the team’s white Winter Classic sweaters hanging in it and a pair of socks neatly folded below.

There will also be “CR” stickers on the back of the helmets worn by both the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals during Thursday’s game — reminders of a man whose presence will be greatly missed at the NHL’s signature event.

“He passed away, but it’s not like we’re going to forget about him,” said Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. “He’s still in our hearts and he’s still I guess you can say in this locker room. If we can do something little like credit a stall in his name or wear a ‘CR’ on the back of our helmet and things like that, I think it goes a long way just for his remembrance.”

The tributes are especially fitting during the Winter Classic, when the equipment staffs from both teams are taxed even more than usual while helping players adapt to the bright sunshine and bone-chilling cold.

Reif was with the Blackhawks when they hosted the 2009 event at Wrigley Field and shared in their two recent Stanley Cup victories. Among those he made a strong impression on were Troy Brouwer, who began his NHL career in Chicago and kept in touch with Reif even after signing with Washington in 2011.

It was Brouwer, along with Caps equipment manager Brock Myles, who came up with the idea of the hosts wearing a “CR” sticker as well.

“(The hockey world) is a lot smaller than people think,” said Washington coach Barry Trotz, who phoned counterpart Joel Quenneville ahead of time to clear the tribute with him.

“The trainers are very, very close. They are very tight, just as the players are across the league and coaches and all that. When a member goes down they all want to show the respect.”

Reif has been described as an extremely popular member of the Blackhawks organization. A couple players were visibly shaken and politely declined comment when asked about his impact on Wednesday afternoon.

Brouwer continues to call Chicago home in the summer and said that Reif would come out to assist players during their off-season skating sessions — whether they continued to be Blackhawks or not.

“(He was) outgoing, very outgoing,” said Brouwer. “He always seemed very, very upbeat, very enjoyable, loved what he did, loved hanging out with the guys, having beers with the guys on the road.”

One of his favourite things was participating in the kind of activity that bonds teams together.

“He liked to play little pranks on people: Nothing serious but just kind of screw around with their gear just because he knew exactly what they liked, what they didn’t like,” said Brouwer.

The decision to put his name on a locker stall here was seen as an acknowledgement that Reif is like any other member of team. More than one player likened his unexpected death to a loss in the family.

“I don’t think people realize that much how hard our trainers do work and what they do on a daily basis,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “When your team wins a Stanley Cup you go from Day 1 all the way until the end working day by day. Every day you’re with those guys. …

“A lot of our success starts with their work ethic.”

On days like this one at the Winter Classic venue, there is a buoyancy among the participants. Many players looked around with awe as they walked into the 40,000-seat stadium and began to take in the ballpark’s unique look.

The Blackhawks went through a brisk practice on Wednesday before inviting members of the Wounded Warriors program onto the ice for some shinny. Even that moment brought on memories of Reif.

“He was part of our family,” said Chicago forward Bryan Bickell. “For him with the Wounded Warriors out there today, I know he was the main guy to set up everybody getting new gear last year when we were playing at Soldier Field. Thoughts came through my head again when they came out.

“He’s always going to be in our hearts and with his family.”

So, while the Blackhawks seemed excited to participate in a major event on New Year’s Day, they also continue to play with heavy hearts.

“Clint meant a lot,” said Toews. “Not only for what he did as far as his job in this locker room, but just the guy that he was. Absolutely he’s part of this team.

“He will be for a long time.”

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