Brent Sopel

Sopel finds post-NHL purpose in sharing story about dyslexia

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Tears streamed down Brent Sopel’s face as he watched himself on screen, summoning the courage to detail the darkest moments of his lifelong struggles with dyslexia.

The stinging memories of being taunted by classmates. The empty feelings of worthlessness that drained Sopel even while winning the Stanley Cup as a defenseman for the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.

And then there were his battles with alcohol and drug abuse upon retiring from pro hockey following a 17-career in which he played for six NHL teams, two more in Russia and lastly with the AHL Chicago Wolves in 2015.

Sopel outlined his story in a documentary, ”Brent Sopel: Here to Change the World.” The 25-minute film was recently released to promote his charitable foundation dedicated to helping others deal the challenges and stigma of dyslexia.

”It was tough. I cried through it,” Sopel said. ”It brings back a lot of raw emotions. I’ve got scars that will never go away.”

The film begins with the former player recalling the embarrassment he felt in ninth grade, when asked to read aloud during English class, which Sopel described as being ”probably one of the worst days of my life.” The documentary ends with an uplifting message, with Sopel saying: ”Hi, I’m Brent Sopel, here to change the world.”

This isn’t the first time Sopel has shared his story. Difficult as it might be for him to relive, it most certainly won’t be the last.

”No matter what battle you’re in, alcoholism, depression, dyslexia, when you’re in that battle, you think you’re alone. But I have to tell you, you’re not,” said Sopel, now 3 1/2 years sober. ”I never want another kid to feel the way I do each and every day.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting the brain’s ability to process language, and leads to difficulty reading and writing. Though there is no cure for dyslexia, which affects nearly one in five people, its challenges can be overcome through tutoring, especially when diagnosed at an early age.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, Sopel didn’t know what was wrong with him. He turned to being a class clown and bully at school, something he will always regret. Hockey was his refuge.

”If I didn’t have hockey, I’d be dead,” he said.

Selected by Vancouver in the sixth round of the 1995 draft, Sopel became known for his grit and fearless shot-blocking. ”Petrified” about what his life would be without hockey, Sopel played through numerous injuries, including a broken hand.

The career highlight came with him raising the Cup in 2010, in what proved to be his second-to-last NHL season. And yet, the moment wasn’t entirely fulfilling.

”It felt great, but empty,” Sopel said.

Whatever glory he felt was washed away once his career was over and he spiraled into substance abuse and depression, with little prospect of landing a job because he lacked an education. There were days he couldn’t get out of bed.

”Drugs and alcohol became my best friend,” he said in the documentary. ”I was very close to death.”

Sopel credits family and friends for staying by him and intervening. He now has reason to get out of bed by dedicating himself to helping others, including coaching youth teams in the Chicago area.

”It wasn’t easy. But you know what, I’m here and in a better place,” said Sopel, whose now-teenage daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade. ”I have a purpose, and I think this is my purpose, the foundation and I’m telling it the way it is.”

Sopel’s message has been heard by many, and resonated with Kaid Oliver, a 20-year-old Western Hockey League forward, who is dyslexic. Oliver was reluctant to discuss dealing with dyslexia, even with a teammate who has the disability, until an assistant coach introduced him to Sopel.

”For someone to talk openly about it, and be willing to put themselves out there, it’s awesome what Brent’s doing,” he said.

Before encountering Sopel, Oliver could never have envisioned speaking about dyslexia so publicly.

”Even my tutor, she’s basically family and I’ve been working with her since I was super young. She was surprised I’m talking so openly about it,” he said. ”It’s not something I’m proud of, but at the same time, it’s something I have to deal with, and something people should know that they’re not alone.”

He’s taken up reading books for the first time, and signed up for a college course. Once resigned to working in his family’s business after he was done with hockey, Oliver can dare to see other job possibilities now.

”I feel more comfortable with life after hockey, or thinking about that portion,” said Oliver, whose father is dyslexic.

Sopel wouldn’t change a thing about his life by sharing his experiences.

”You take a look at Kaid and Jack (Rodman), who are on the video. They both were alone until they told their stories,” Sopel said. ”That’s why I’m telling them my story. It’s for those two and every other kid and 20% of the population to connect the dots and say, ‘I’m not alone.”’

He wouldn’t trade what he’s doing today for anything – even a Stanley Cup ring, which he once tried selling.

”It was a childhood dream winning a Stanley Cup,” Sopel said. ”But without a doubt, the legacy of me and my foundation, impacting kids’ lives, is way more important.”

Marc Crawford will return to Blackhawks’ bench after suspension

Marc Crawford Suspension
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Assistant coach Marc Crawford has been away from the Chicago Blackhawks since Dec. 2 as the team investigated incidents of player abuse during his previous NHL coaching stops.

The team announced on Monday evening that Crawford will remain suspended through Jan. 2 following the investigation, and will then return to the team’s bench.

Crawford and the team both released statements. Those statements address the incidents, the investigation, the suspension, and the steps Crawford has taken.

The Blackhawks said they do not condone his previous behavior, and during their review confirmed that Crawford proactively sought counseling in an effort to improve.

He began the counseling in 2010 and has continued to go through on a regular basis.

Crawford’s statement

Crawford issued a few more in-depth statement. Here is an excerpt.

Recently, allegations have resurfaced about my conduct earlier in my coaching career. Players like Sean Avery, Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan and Brent Sopel have had the strength to publicly come forward and I am deeply sorry for hurting them. I offer my sincere apologies for my past behavior.

I got into coaching to help people, and to think that my actions in any way caused harm to even one player fills me with tremendous regret and disappointment in myself. I used unacceptable language and conduct toward players in hopes of motivating them, and, sometimes went too far. As I deeply regret this behavior, I have worked hard over the last decade to improve both myself and my coaching style.

I have made sincere efforts to address my inappropriate conduct with the individuals involved as well as the team at large. I have regularly engaged in counseling over the last decade where I have faced how traumatic my behavior was towards others. I learned new ways of expressing and managing my emotions. I take full responsibility for my actions.

You can read the full statements via the Blackhawks’ website.

The incidents

Just before Crawford stepped away from the Blackhawks, former NHL player Sean Avery told the New York Post that Crawford had kicked him back in 2006 when they were with the Los Angeles Kings. Several other players that played under Crawford also came forward with stories, including Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Brent Sopel.

Druken called Crawford “hands down the worst human being I’ve ever met” for his verbal and physical abuse that included derogatory comments about Druken’s background.

O’Sullivan had also shared similar stories about Crawford’s coaching tactics.

Other incidents around the league

• The stories regarding Crawford started to resurface following Bill Peters’ exit from the Calgary Flames.

Peters resigned from the Flames after it was revealed he used a racial slur against former player Akim Aliu when he was head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. That was followed by defenseman Michal Jordan detailing how Peters had punched and kicked players on the Hurricanes’ bench, a claim that was backed up by then-assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.

•  Shortly after Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a story surfaced detailing how he made then-rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates from hardest working to least hardest working, and then informed the players at the bottom of the list of Marner’s ranking.

• Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen also shared his own personal experiences with Babcock, calling him the worst person he had ever met.

More: Crawford on leave from Blackhawks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Top 10 craziest non-hockey NHL injuries (not our list, someone else’s)

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Dustin Penner’s pancake-related injury has inspired Sportsnet.ca to compile a top-10 list of the “craziest non-hockey NHL injuries.”

Our favorite? Former goalie Glenn Healy cutting his hand for 40 stitches while cleaning his bagpipes. In hindsight, his biggest mistake was buying bagpipes made of knives.

Honorary mention goes to then-Canucks defenseman Brent Sopel, who threw out his back picking up a cracker in 2007. Although in fairness, it was a Triscuit, and you could chuck one of those through a brick wall.

Notable omission from the list is another former Canuck, Michael Grabner, who in 2009 tore up his ankle playing soccer in the hallway before a game.

“I just jumped up and my heel got caught on the wall and I landed on my toes and rolled over,” explained Grabner.

/pictures it and tries not to laugh

//laughs, but doesn’t feel bad because he recovered, scored a bunch of goals and now he’s rich

KHL calling: Brent Sopel headed to Russia; Alex Kovalev to follow?

With the NHL free agent market all but running out of jobs for those available, some players are taking the initiative and finding work elsewhere.

Former Penguins star and former Rangers and Canadiens forward Alex Kovalev is reportedly heading to the KHL. According to sources, Kovalev will sign a deal with Atlant Mytishchi to play hockey next season in his home country. Kovalev spent last season with the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins and scored 16 goals and 18 assists in 74 games combined with each team. In his time with the Penguins, he scored just two goals and five assists.

Over 18 NHL seasons, Kovalev has scored 428 goals and amassed 1,024 points but at 38 years-old he’s lost a step and isn’t as dynamic of a scorer as he once was. While it’ll be sad to see him leave the NHL, he’s seen the game rocket past his abilities to be a big time offensive producer.

source: Getty Images

Former Montreal defenseman and Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks Brent Sopel announced via Twitter that he’s headed to Russia to play in the KHL. Making his signing all the more official was the posting made by Sopel’s wife on her blog saying as much.

Sometimes, well most of the time, things don’t go as planned.  This is one of them.  We have been back in the Syracuse area visiting family for over a week now, and Sopes and Paul returned to Chicago two days ago.  I received a phone call that he signed with the KHL.  Metallurg Novokuznetsk to be exact.  The hardest part is that he’s got to leave by August 9th – not much time.

While Kovalev’s departure would be sad, Sopel’s is a bit surprising given that he’s got some defensive abilities on the blue line and is a capable shot blocker. Last season with Atlanta and Montreal, Sopel had two goals and five assists all with the Thrashers. With the Canadiens, Sopel registered no points and was a -1 in plus/minus in 12 games. Being a defensive defenseman means not scoring points and not getting noticed in your own end.

There’s certainly a place for Sopel in the NHL, but waiting it out and potentially ending up with a two-way deal and winding up in the AHL at some point isn’t too appealing. You can’t fault Sopel for going for the sure thing and the sure money, even if it is so far from home.

Best of the rest update: The remaining top free agents on the market

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We’re over three weeks removed from the start of free agency and the signing season was quick to start and now heads into its slower days as teams rosters have filled out. While some teams have yet to get to the salary floor, the big money deals are all but over with and finding that key depth contributor to perhaps lead to a Stanley Cup run next summer can be tricky.

As it is, there’s a host of guys with famous names still out on the market and with recent salary buyouts and arbitration rejection there’s a few more interesting names out there for teams to sniff around at. By interesting we mean guys you know and might even ask, “He’s still playing?” about.

Without further ado, here’s the free agent hit-list as it stands according to the wise guys at CapGeek.

At forward you have recent buyout victims Chris Drury and J.P. Dumont. Drury’s days with the Rangers are over with and as an experienced third or fourth line center he could be useful for a team in need. Perhaps a team like Ottawa or Phoenix could stand to have a guy like him to help provide depth and leadership to the host of youth on both rosters.

If veteran centers are your thing, there’s also Mike Modano and Kris Draper who spent last year in Detroit, Todd White who spent time with the Rangers, and John Madden who played in Minnesota last year.

Dumont could bring some solid big-body depth to a team in need along the wings. He was able to do reasonably well there for Nashville over the last few seasons, but last year was a bad one for him with reduced ice time and just 11 goals.

Other wingers with some name recognition and perhaps a little bit to bring to the table include Sergei Samsonov, Alex Kovalev, Cory Stillman, and Ethan Moreau. If you want pure offense and potentially frustrating production there’s always Nikolay Zherdev whose 16 goals in 56 games with the Flyers last year showed that he’s still able to get it done in the NHL after a year in the KHL.

Teemu Selanne is still, technically, an unrestricted free agent the word out there is that if he doesn’t sign with the Anaheim Ducks again, he’s going to hang it up for good. Here’s to hoping we see Selanne back in black and orange for one more season.

At defense, the recently let go Chris Campoli heads the list of available and useful players there. The Blackhawks and Campoli went to arbitration early so the Blackhawks could refuse his arbitration victory and set him free. With older options like Bryan McCabe, Scott Hannan, Steve Staios, Steve Eminger, Craig Rivet, and Brent Sopel out there on the market, a team in need of another experienced defenseman has some options available to them.

A team like the New York Islanders that needs to reach the salary floor and has a need for more experience on the blue line could go dipping into the pool here but don’t expect Campoli to be their possible target, they’ve been there before with him. Besides, the Isles are busy with a reclamation story of a different kind.

With goalies, the availability list is short and the market may be impossible to get through. After Detroit signed Ty Conklin to be their backup goalie once again, for guys that are still out there they’ll have a hard time finding work. That means for Pascal Leclaire, Marty Turco, and Ray Emery landing an immediate NHL job may not happen. Waiting around for injuries to happen elsewhere across the league will help potentially lead to ironic headlines in the future. For Turco, it could mean an earlier start to a television career.

The pickings are slim, but there’s help to be had for some teams out there. The key will be to not make a signing end up being too foolish to make it work.