When Chicago Wolves defenseman Brent Sopel was growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he spent a good chunk of every summer on his Baba’s farm three hours away (“Baba,” by the way, is Ukrainian for grandmother).
To provide an idea of how isolated young Brent was on Ann Sopel’s farm outside of Danbury, Saskatchewan, consider these facts: Danbury has never been big enough for census takers to bother visiting. Look up Danbury on Wikipedia and here’s the entire entry: “Danbury is a hamlet in Saskatchewan.” Click on Danbury’s business directory and there are just two categories: “Car Repair” and “Towing.”
There was no running water on the farm. Drinking water came from a well. When Brent needed to go to the bathroom, he visited the outhouse. When he needed a bath, he collected rainwater or melting snow from the 50-gallon drum outside and heated it up on the stove. Then he dipped a sponge in the warm water, mixed it with some soap and scrubbed himself clean.
In short, it was heaven.
“Those are experiences and memories I would never give up,” Sopel said. “Growing up on the farm and true labor and working in the fields. Digging. Welding. Cutting. Animals. The whole nine yards. I’m where I am today for one reason: Hard work. Being on that farm helped mold me.”
One of Sopel’s favorite farm activities as a boy foreshadowed the matchless work ethic that has enabled him to play more than 1,000 professional games.
“We had a 1940 Massey-Harris tractor,” Sopel said. “They would never let me start it without an adult, so I’d just push it up the hill and ghost-ride it until it stopped and then I’d push it back up. I’d do that for hours and hours and hours.
“I probably started doing that when I was 5. I’d do it tread by tread. When I’d get tired, I’d stick a rock under the wheel so it wouldn’t roll back down the hill. That was my baby.”
Sopel carried that drive to the ice. His father, Bernie, flooded the back yard and garden of their Saskatoon home so he could skate and play whenever he wanted. Of course, he always wanted.
“Nobody in my family ever played hockey, but I was interested in playing so my dad was out there flooding it,” Sopel said. “It didn’t matter the temperature or the circumstances; I was going out there.”
Always one of the biggest kids in town – he has stood 6-foot-1 since he was 13 years old – Sopel developed into a physical blueliner who could deliver points. Coming up through the Western Hockey League and the AHL, Sopel averaged more than 10 goals per season.
When he arrived in the National Hockey League (he made his debut with the Vancouver Canucks on April 5, 1999, at the age of 22), he needed just three games to score his first goal. During his most productive season with the Canucks (2003-04), he stacked up 10 goals and 32 assists.
“I was drafted as an offensive defenseman,” Sopel said. “I came into the league as an offensive defenseman. I played on the power play my whole career up until I came to Chicago in 2007.”
That’s the turning point when Sopel became the player that Chicago fans know today: The guy who does anything to stop the opposing team from putting the puck in the net. He estimates he has broken 60 bones in his career – and that number grew on Dec. 9 when he fractured a finger while blocking a shot at San Antonio.
Sopel made the adjustment when he joined the Blackhawks in 2007 and was told young defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook (then 24 and 22 years old, respectively) would get the power-play mnutes so they could develop.
“I went home and sat and did some thinking,” Sopel said. “If I wanted my career to continue, I needed to do something else. I decided to say, ‘You know what? I need to turn my game into a shot-blocking, defensive defenseman.’ I had always blocked shots, but I told myself I needed to get better at it. You have to have a specialty to stay in the NHL. I had one for a number of years. It was good to me, but I needed to change my gears and look at something else.”
While blocked shots aren’t the be-all, end-all statistic to define defensemen, Sopel ranked ninth in the NHL (and first on the Blackhawks) in blocks per 60 minutes during the 2009-10 season that led to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
“I won that Stanley Cup thousands and thousands of times on that outdoor rink at my home as a kid,” Sopel said. “We played for it every day. But actually being able to say I won that and to lift it over my head – and for it to happen later in my career – was definitely the highlight of my career. No question.”
When he reached the pinnacle of his career, Sopel didn’t just reminisce about the days and nights on his home rink. He thought about a way to honor those summers on his Baba’s farm.
When it was Sopel’s turn to have his day with the Cup, he threw an invitation-only barbecue at his Hinsdale home. Friends and family flew in from all over North America. He made sure his children – Paul, Jake, Lyla and Jayla – included their friends in the celebration. And that 1940 Massey-Harris tractor played a role as well.
“My Baba ended up selling that tractor to me and I got it restored,” Sopel said. “My goal was to one day win the Stanley Cup and drive the tractor with the Stanley Cup on there.”
So Sopel fired up that red tractor, put one hand around the steering wheel, the other hand around the top of the Cup and led a parade through the west suburban town.
“Obviously I knew all the police officers in town and everybody knew who I was,” Sopel said. “Everybody was good and fine and respectful. We had a little train of cars trailing behind us. It was a lot of fun.”
Now, if this were the Hollywood version of Sopel’s life, the story ends here. The boy pushes the tractor up the hill…the man rides same tractor through town to celebrate reaching the peak of his career. But professional athletes’ lives don’t end when the credits roll.
Over the last few years, Sopel has begun carving out new career paths for himself. “Brent Sopel’s Defense Academy” is a series of week-long clinics exclusively for defensemen. He hosted camps in Saskatoon and Syracuse last summer and plans to add Chicago this summer.
“Last year I had kids from 15 states and seven provinces,” Sopel said. “I’m on the ice every day working with these kids about the position. It’s the details and the corner and the front of the net. We also bring in a sports psychologist and a sports nutritionist and a strength coach. I try to run the camp the way I run my career – professional.”
Then there’s his burgeoning interest in serving as a hockey analyst for the media. When the Blackhawks made their run to the Stanley Cup in 2013, Chicago’s NBC affiliate tapped Sopel to lend his expertise. He has built on that relationship and you can expect to see Sopel appear regularly this winter and spring on NBC’s “Sports Sunday” show after the 10 p.m. newscasts.
In addition, when the Wolves’ schedule allows, Sopel takes the 4 p.m. to midnight shift for 120Sports – a new Sports Illustrated-affiliated internet network (120Sports.com) that capitalizes on the nation’s shift to smartphones and other mobile access.
“I love him,” said Laurence Holmes, who hosts daily sports-talk shows in Chicago at WSCR-AM and 120 Sports and worked with Sopel at NBC. “He’s honest. He’s natural. He has a great sense of humor. He’s got wonderful stories and he explains things in a very simple way. He makes it very easy to understand. That’s a lot of his appeal on TV. That, and he looks like Ashton Kutcher…if Ashton Kutcher had been taking pucks in the face for 10 years.”
“I’d love to get a full-time job and be in the hockey world and teach fans on a nightly basis what we see as a player or as a coach,” Sopel said. “Try to build their awareness of the game. Then they pass it along to the next fan and it’s another way of building this great game.”
But playing the game comes first. Sopel, who has seized upon the hashtag #EnjoyTheSkate while building his social media profile, still loves going to the rink every day.
On most practice mornings, he arrives before any of his teammates so he can work out with Wolves strength and conditioning coach Evan Levy. Sopel, whose 38th birthday is Jan. 7, understands it requires more time and effort to stay a step ahead.
He also stays as long as it takes in order to make himself or his teammates better. After a recent Wolves practice, assistant coach Brad Tapper kept five forwards on the ice for some extra work. Though all of the defensemen were done for the day, Sopel stuck around to watch the drill with hopes of learning something. Instead, he wound up changing a few things in the drill.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, where you’ve been or how long you’ve been in the game,” Sopel said. “You always learn. Everybody has different ideas and it’s all about what’s going to fit. Brad’s doing a drill and I’m watching it. Maybe there’s something I can learn from him. Maybe I see something different they don’t see.”
For a player who was invited to preseason camp in September with no guarantee of making the Wolves, Sopel has been darn near irreplaceable all the way around.
“He was such a leader on and off the ice in camp,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “He was our best player in the exhibitions, so it was a no-brainer when to bring him in when a vet spot opened. He could mail it in every night, but he comes to work and he’s prepared. Brent is the first guy to block a shot, first guy to confront somebody, all that. That says something for his character, that’s for sure.”
“I’ve watched him for years,” said Wolves head coach John Anderson. “He’s very judicious with the puck. He’s not the greatest skater in the world, but the plays he makes with the puck make up for it. He’s just that much smarter than everybody.”