If you only want to scratch the surface with a story about Chicago Wolves goaltender Pheonix Copley, then there are a lot of easy angles.
Let’s sort out these questions so we can get to the essence of the 23-year-old who, along with Jordan Binnington, gives the Wolves perhaps the finest 1-2 goaltending combo in the American Hockey League.
Question 1: What’s with his rare first name and why are the vowels in the wrong order?
Before we explain that, we should explain this: Pheonix has an older brother named Navarone. Peter Copley and Mary Sanford, Pheonix’s parents, selected that moniker one day while leafing through Life magazine and seeing the name of Priscilla Presley’s son.
“Once you have a Navarone, it’s hard to have a Jeff or a Michael afterward,” Mary said.
When she was pregnant with Pheonix, one of her friend’s children visited their home and cracked open a book on Greek mythology. Mary and Peter loved the name Phoenix and the description of the mythical bird that radiated rays of pure sunlight. Peter, though, didn’t love its spelling.
“When I was young, I was taught, ‘When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,’ ” Peter said. “Pheonix made more sense to me.”
With that mystery solved, now it’s time to answer Question 2: Is Copley really from North Pole, Alaska? The town’s name raises eyebrows all year round, but even more at this time of year. Even Copley wondered if this story deliberately was planned for the holidays as a tie-in with North Pole (Editor’s note: It was not).
For the record, Copley’s hometown of 2,000 people can be found 1,700 miles south of the actual North Pole, but it does play up the Christmas angle. Hundreds of thousands of children’s letters addressed to Santa Claus somehow get diverted to North Pole, Alaska. Meanwhile, thousands of adults intentionally send mail there in order to get North Pole postmarks for their holiday envelopes.
That leads us to Question 3: What’s up with those thick-framed glasses that he wears? If you see Copley when he’s not in his hockey gear, he looks an awful lot like…
“We call him ‘Clark Kent,’ ” said Wolves head coach John Anderson.
As it turns out, Copley didn’t start wearing those glasses with the intention of becoming Clark Kent’s double.
“I had another pair of glasses that wasn’t as bold as these, but I forgot them at my rink in Alaska over the summer,” he said. “The ones I have were just to throw people off with a different look, but now they’re the only ones I have. Now people are comparing me to Clark Kent. I try to be mild-mannered.”
No, Copley does not try to be the Man of Steel – but he is the Man of Steely Determination.
Since he started playing hockey, Copley has been the one who pushed ahead with relentless effort – in part to keep pace with his brother. In fact, the primary reason he became a goalie was due to Navarone. He was a talented shooter who needed someone to try to stop him. Ergo, Pheonix become the one who put on the goalie gear.
“His brother was a natural,” Peter Copley said. “Pheonix always had to try harder. He was always forced to play above his comfort zone. He’d always play with his brother and play up a level (Navarone is 16 months older, but two years older when it came to being assigned to teams).”
Peter, Mary, Navarone and Pheonix moved to Ohio when the boys were really young as Peter pursued an advanced degree. When Pheonix was in second grade, the family split and only Mary, Navarone and Pheonix moved back to Alaska. Their commitment to hockey only deepened upon their return.
Their journey began in Anchorage, where Mary had a brother and the boys had an older cousin. During the summertime, Navarone and their cousin would strap makeshift pads on Pheonix and station him in the middle of the street for endless roller hockey action.
“Sometimes there would be five teenagers skating around him for hours and hours and shooting on him with hard pucks,” Mary said.
“We’d stay out there all day,” Pheonix said. “We’d make up different contests. It was great.”
When the family moved to Fairbanks, the boys somehow found a way to play hockey even more. Fairbanks has a popular park that features an indoor rink and three outdoor rinks. Every winter weekend, Mary would accompany Navarone and Pheonix there and the boys would stay outside playing for 4-5 hours at a clip. The indoor rink had windows high above the outdoor rinks, so Mary would stand there and watch her boys pursue their passion.
“It could get down to 10 or 20 below zero, but the wind doesn’t blow too much in Fairbanks,” Mary said. “If the boys got cold, they’d come in for some hot chocolate and go right back out.”
If the boys weren’t at that outdoor complex, then they were playing for the Arctic Lions organization. When Navarone and Pheonix joined the club, Mark Sanford served as one of the coaches and Mark’s son, Matthew, played on Pheonix’s team. Mark and Mary became friends, then they became more. When they married in 2005, Mary and Navarone and Pheonix moved to the Sanford home in North Pole.
In addition to enjoying a larger family, Navarone and Pheonix had a new venue to play outdoors. There’s a lake near their home, so the winter months found the boys walking down a trail with their skates over their shoulders. They’d shovel the snow off the frozen pond, put barrels on the ice and enjoy makeshift games.
“As long as we could see the puck, we’d be out there,” Pheonix said. “If there were outdoor rinks here, I would love to play. It’s fun to go out there and play forward and mess around. It’s a lot of fun.”
Unfortunately for Pheonix’s outdoor career as a forward, his indoor career as a goaltender has become too promising to risk his future.
After spending two seasons at Michigan Tech, Pheonix signed a deal with the NHL’s Washington Capitals in 2014. He spent his first full season as a pro with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last year and produced terrific numbers: a 17-4-3 record, 2.17 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
Copley joined the St. Louis Blues organization this summer when he was included in the T.J. Oshie/Troy Brouwer trade which has given him the opportunity to team with Jordan Binnington in goal for the Wolves.
The pair takes turns starting in goal because they’re both too good to be held out of the action. Copley, for example, posted shutouts in his second and third games this season.
“We’ve got two No. 1 goalies on this team,” said Wolves goaltending coach Stan Dubicki. “I think his talent is off the charts. Same as Binnington. They compete with each other, but they’re great with each other. Pheonix is a great kid. You can tell he was raised right.”
As for who raised Pheonix and Navarone correctly, Peter Copley, who lives in Oregon, is understandably proud of his sons. But he knows who has done the lion’s share of the work.
“His mother is an incredible individual,” Peter said. “She sacrificed so much for the boys. She is a real hero of his life story.”
Rest assured that Pheonix appreciates all Mary has done – even since he has left North Pole to pursue his goaltending fortunes.
“In college, she started watching every game (on TV),” Pheonix said. “I’ve seen videos of her watching the games and she’s a typical goalie mom. My brothers send me videos and she’s on the edge of the couch and really, really into the games. They shoot the puck on me and she’s wincing. It’s pretty comical, but she really cares about how we do and whatever we’re passionate about.”
By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman | Illustration by Imran Javed