Joseph Blandisi still feels the loss. You can hear the hurt in his voice.
It's been a little more than three weeks since the former Barrie Colt and current member of the Montreal Canadiens organization lost his grandfather, Frank Guglietti.
Talking about his "nonno" brings up many memories for Blandisi of the man he loved and admired. And what comes through is a determination to carry on everything he learned from an Italian grandfather who taught him so much about life and how important it is to support not only his family, but other families in need.
Especially at Christmas.
"He instilled family values at a young age," said Blandisi, who started a GoFundMe in honour of Guglietti to help raise money for Holiday Helpers Canada, an organization that helps low-income families in the GTA with a one-time personalized Christmas package.
"He came over from Italy when he was (in his late teens) and he built this amazing family that we have. He's had more kids of his own and now there's grandkids and great grandkids. The type of holidays we have, obviously without COVID, are usually amazing, huge feasts. Just a lot of love in our family and it all really started from him.
"I think my nonna (grandmother) was a lot younger than him when he started dating her and he took really good care of her and they built such an amazing family. It's something I look up to and I want to build in my life as well, so I thought with him passing I wanted to make a difference in other families' lives as well. That's why I started the GoFundMe."
Guglietti cared about everybody and left an impression on everyone he met, Blandisi told BarrieToday.
"There's people that would text me after meeting him and they were like, 'Wow, you're nonno's a man. What a good guy he is,'" said the 26-year-old, who finished last season with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League and is hoping to crack the Canadiens lineup when NHL training camp opens in early January.
"I'm trying to carry that on I guess."
Blandisi said his mom would tell him about the work ethic his grandfather had when he was younger, how he made his own painting business.
"He didn't really come from much, but he just willed his way to do everything. So, I think part of that is in me as well," Blandisi said. "He's one of a kind. I'm just trying to make him happy watching from above."
The GoFundMe has raised almost $6,000, double the $2,500 he had initially targeted. Blandisi admits he had to come out of his comfort zone to ask people for money.
"I know the kids of the less fortunate are having a hard time at this time," said the Markham native, who played his final two seasons (2013-2015) in the OHL with Barrie. "Whatever they had before, they have less now. I just thought maybe I'd come out of my comfort zone on behalf of my nonno and try to make him proud and try to make a difference in these kids' lives.
"I'm baffled by how well it's going and I doubled my goal, and I'm pumped up about it."
His grandfather began having health problems during Blandisi's final year with Barrie six years ago. As Blandisi, who would finish with 52 goals, closed in on 50 goals, he found his nonno couldn't be there to see him hit the mark.
The talented overage forward, who would ink a pro deal with the New Jersey Devils that season, had hoped his grandfather could see him play in the NHL.
As it happened, he got to see Blandisi play in 101 NHL games.
"He was a fighter and I spent so much time with him the last week in the hospital," said the five-foot-11, 187-pound centre, who inked a one-year, two-way deal with Montreal in September after stints with New Jersey, Anaheim and Pittsburgh. "He fought. He fought every day."
His grandfather's loss wasn't the only tough blow Blandisi had to deal with this year. The death of former Barrie coach Dale Hawerchuk this past August to stomach cancer also hit him hard.
"I could tell you to this day he's the best coach I've ever had," he said of Hawerchuk. "I've had a lot going from team to team, but that guy was one of a kind. I don't think I'd be where I am today without him in that last year."
Blandisi remembers when a virus cost him the remainder of his first season in Barrie. Blandisi, who was acquired from Ottawa that year, would only play 10 games with the Colts. Hawerchuk was there for him every step of the way.
"He was a second dad for me, really," he said. "I was at his house a month-and-a-half before he passed."
Blandisi would spend the summer playing tennis and going golfing with former teammate and Dale's son, Ben. Hawerchuk always put the person before the player, says Blandisi.
"Any coach that treats you like that gets the best out of their players," he said. "You always wanted to go to the rink and work for Dale."
"He'd wear his heart on his sleeve and he really left a good example on all of us," added Blandisi. "I think that's part of the legacy he left behind."
Lessons that Blandisi will take with him into camp as he tries to land a spot with the Canadiens. He admits he's really missed hockey and hasn't played a game in this long since he first began playing.
He's tried to use the time off working out and getting on the ice as much as possible in hopes of finally cracking his first opening-day roster. An opening day that is fast arriving after the NHL announced a deal with NHLPA to begin play on Jan. 13.
Blandisi remembers the days when Hawerchuk would harp on the offensive player that he needed to play an all-around game if he was to have a career in the NHL.
That message has come through loud and clear. He now recognizes that with his speed and anticipation he can be a better penalty killer.
"I can (score), but at the same time there's guys they have a lot of skill to do the power-play job, so I've had to look in the mirror," said Blandisi, who has 10 goals and 31 points in 101 NHL games.
"If I want to make it, I have to defend harder against shooting lanes, I've got to block shots. I've got to be a threat on the penalty kill as well. Obviously you want to be the guy that scores goals, I've done it my whole life, but eventually you get old enough to realize you want to make a career out of this game and do what you want for a living and you have to realize you can't do exactly what you want to.
"You have to do what it takes to help the team win. Maybe a more defensive role, focusing on faceoffs. Being like that would help me solidify my spot on the opening-day roster."
As 2020 draws to a close, Blandisi has had time to reflect on what has been a trying year. He knows it's important we support one another. Just one of many things he learned from his nonno and is determined to carry on.
"A lot of things have happened this year with Dale and the death of my grandfather and everything else that's going on in the world (like) Black Lives Matter and COVID," he said. "You can't take anything for granted, you don't know what tomorrow holds. The night before COVID hit we were going to bed and had just won a season game and just expected to show up for practice the next day and boom, the season is over. You couldn't have seen it coming.
"You just got to appreciate every day and give thanks and gratitude to what we have in front of us, and just always be appreciative."