CHICAGO -- Each weekday at around 8 a.m., Brent Sopel climbs into his car in the western suburbs and turns on an audiobook of the Bible. Close to an hour later, after his car scoots through an industrial swath of Chicago's West Loop, he parks in the lot of an auto mechanic shop, nestled next to an overpass.
Every few minutes, a truck swishes by, thumping over a pothole on the road. An alley of the building leads to a door to a warehouse garage. Inside that garage, up a set of unfinished wooden stairs, is a small office that Sopel calls his own. Two small windows overlook the dimly lit warehouse space.
The 12-year NHL veteran -- whose hair is cropped short for the first time since he was 18 -- sits at his desk and revs up his MacBook. Space is tight; the desk is no-frills, and on it sits an office phone, scattered yellow Post-its and a red Solo cup filled with pens and highlighters. Behind him, on a shelf in the corner, is the only decoration: three framed photos of his children.
Officially, this is where Sopel works part time for a coconut water company and to build a charitable foundation. But unofficially, this is where Sopel is offering a lifeline.
In March, Sopel wrote an article for The Players' Tribune revealing that he struggled with a learning disability and alcoholism. Although a phone app alerts him that he has now been sober 464 days, there are other reminders of how far he has come. Almost every day that he sits at his desk, sometimes with his shirt sleeves rolled up, a new email or text message trickles in from someone who has been touched by Sopel's story. He tries to answer as many messages as he can. In some cases, he offers his phone number. Sometimes, he offers to meet in person. He'll do whatever he can do to help others and let them know that they are not alone. "It takes a while," he said, joking. "I mean, especially if it's a long email."
The truth is, Sopel still struggles with dyslexia and dysgraphia. He listens to the Bible because he has never actually read the Bible. "I don't even think I could read one sentence of it," he says. "It's too complex."
Sopel says it's too much effort to retrain his brain. He can read and write, but it's a battle. "I've made it through this [far]. I'm working my way around it, but writing an email takes forever for me," he says. "When I look at my phone sometimes, I'll look back at a text and [realize that] I missed three or four words."
Seven years ago, not far from this very spot, Sopel was perched on a float, being escorted by a police cruiser through a crowd of two million cheering fans as part of the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup parade. He was at the top of his profession.
Now, however, in his tiny office near the overpass, Brent Sopel has been humbled, a 40-year-old man who reads just above a fourth-grade level.
But maybe, just maybe, he thinks, he can help other kids avoid the mistakes that brought him here.
Good afternoon, Mr. Sopel. I wanted to let you know how much your story reached me. I played all the way up to D1. I've been fighting my own demons with booze for a few years now, starting with my sophomore year in college when I was playing/training through my shredded labrum in my hip. They fed me Vicodin and tried to get me through my "hip flexor strain."... Anytime after games or practice I had a minor injury or something that was a bother, all I knew to do was to cover it with something and now that pills weren't around, booze was available 365 days a year. Yours was probably the 10th story I have read today, but it stopped me from going out to get a drink. ...
Hi Brent. I am a 2000 born defenseman who is playing in his first year of junior hockey next year. I have dyslexia and dysgraphia. I just wanted to say I remember watching you play in the big show on the blueline for the 'Hawks. Your article made me realize that I need to face my issues and not turn to alcohol as a slippery path.
Fans knew Brent Sopel as a journeyman defenseman with shoulder-length hair and an infectious smile that was usually missing a few teeth. His 12-year NHL career included stops as a valuable role player for seven teams -- most notably for the Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team.
Coaches and teammates knew Brent Sopel as just one of the guys. One December in Chicago, he invited teammates Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and 20 military families to his home to open gifts. He brought the Cup to Chicago's Pride parade in an effort to promote inclusiveness. He was the guy who, while playing for the Vancouver Canucks, bedazzled his house with so many Christmas lights that his teammates called him "Griswold," an ode to Chevy Chase's character in the National Lampoon "Vacation" movies.
On the ice, Sopel shifted from being a power-play specialist to a stay-at-home defenseman who smothered shots with his body. Whatever the team needed, whatever would keep him in the league a few more seasons, that's what he would do. He was married by age 22 and a father by 23. For the most part, he showed up to work every day and kept to himself. When the NHL deemed him washed up in 2011, he spent four years in Siberia, playing in the KHL, then returned to his adopted home of Chicago to play a season in the minors, notching his 1,000th game in North America.
The Brent Sopel nobody knew read at a fourth-grade level. He felt like a dumb athlete because teachers, beginning at age 7, told him he was a dumb athlete. He never took pregame naps because he didn't like being alone with his thoughts. He barely used a computer other than as a vessel to watch movies, and didn't send emails because, as a hockey player, he didn't need to do those things. He drank, and by the end of his playing career, he drank a lot.
His body was ravaged by hockey -- his left wrist can't turn more than 90 degrees, "both my hips are messed up, both my knees are messed up. I don't know how many surgeries I have had. I have a herniated disk in my back, multiple surgeries, pins and screws in my body," he says. His marriage deteriorated while he was in Russia. His relationship with his four children became strained. The year after he retired, Sopel would go on benders, sometimes for 40 hours straight. "I would drink 60 beers," he says. "In one night."
How much did his teammates know?
"Nothing," Sopel says. "You're a pro hockey player and you're paid to play, so as long as you show up and do your job on the ice, nobody asks questions."
But when his close friends and family got to know this Brent Sopel, they told him he needed help. On Sept. 1, 2016, Sopel went to California for rehab. He left 45 days later, sober.
"I thought my issues were normal because that's all I knew," Sopel says. "In rehab, I had an open mind and really tried to understand a lot of things, and I did. I got answers to a lot of questions I didn't know I had. But when I got back it was like, 'OK, well, where do I go from here?'"
Hi Brent. Thank you for your response when I wrote to you about the story of our son and his battle with dyslexia as he's climbed up the hockey ladder. Having come off a very strong freshman season playing college hockey, he is talking with several teams. Ironically, his dyslexia seems to be a major topic of concern with many scouts. It sounds like they are so misinformed and view it as some sort of "red flag" of disability. There are many talented athletes with it, including yourself. Anyways, my son is pretty frustrated and is now referring all scouts to YOUR article. His main goal is to complete college and prove so many people wrong but his love of hockey is undeniable. ...
Hi Brent. Great to see you in control of your destiny. I have always known I have dyslexia, but I didn't realize I had ADD as well. That's because I medicated with booze. I did rehab twice in a year, which saved my life. ... Life will never be easy, but it can always be better than our past.
Dyslexia is a disorder that makes it difficult for people to match letters they see on a page and interpret them into words; it also makes it difficult for accurate or fluid word recognition. A person with dysgraphia has challenges expressing his or her thoughts into written language. Neither disorder is an indicator of overall intelligence.
The International Dyslexia Foundation has published reports stating that between 15 to 20 percent of the population has dyslexia. That's up to one out of every five people you meet -- and that includes Sopel. He also has dysgraphia. He didn't realize this until he was an adult, when his 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed. As the doctor ran through the symptoms, they sounded awfully familiar to Sopel. It explains why he can't remember the last time he went to a doctor's office; one time he walked out when he was handed a clipboard in the waiting room.
"It's just too hard for me to fill it out," he says. "All of the questions, having to spell things. I just couldn't do it."
It also explains some of Sopel's self-esteem issues growing up in Saskatchewan. "Back then, the recognition and diagnosis of dyslexia was completely different," he says. "I struggled, every single day. I was a class clown and tried to make everyone laugh because then the focus wasn't on why I wasn't doing well at school. Reading, writing, everything was a struggle and nobody helped me. I couldn't wait for school to be over so I could grab my hockey stick and play, because that was the only thing I was good at."
The teachers knew Sopel was good at hockey, too. By 10th grade, he was playing in the Western Hockey League for the local Saskatoon Blades, and teachers just seemed to give up. "My stepmom did a lot of work for me," he says. "Like full reports." On one English final, he wrote his name on the front and, on the back, scribbled: "Sorry I was sick."
"I handed it in, and graduated with like a 65 in that class," Sopel says. "I had no business getting that grade."
And then his hockey career took off -- at 18, he was drafted 144th overall in 1995 by the Canucks, and a year later, signed his first professional contract. By 1998, when he made his NHL debut for Vancouver, he only had to focus on hockey. Everything else in his life would subside -- for now.
"If it wasn't for hockey, and the structure of hockey," Sopel says, "I think I would be dead by now. I had nothing."
The problem was, Sopel couldn't play forever.
Hi Brent. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to your story about your struggles with a learning disability. I was diagnosed with one in Grade 3. I have supportive parents and had very supportive teachers, but I also understand it is hard for teachers to help you. If you ever need anything, I am here to help, because I can help you share both sides of the story. ...
Hi Brent. I heard you other day on the radio in Montreal. Your story hit home so much that my heart hurt just listening to what you went through. I have a 15-year-old daughter who has struggled with severe dyslexia for years now with unfortunately not much progress from our medical system. It became worse as kids in high school started to make fun of my daughter, accompanied by bullying. My daughter started hurting herself by cutting her wrists. Your story touched me beyond belief. I admire your courage going public and more importantly, educating and trying to help others. I hope somehow my daughter is able to live the kind of normal life a young teenager should be living.
In many ways, Sopel represents the average NHL player. He was valuable to any blue line, but just as expendable. After three of his best seasons in Vancouver -- he averaged 34 points and posted a combined plus-17 from 2001-04 -- he was traded to the New York Islanders, who offered him a two-year, $4.8 million contract. Halfway through that deal, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, who then traded him back to the Canucks. By the summer of 2007, he was a free agent whom general managers deemed too expensive. At age 30, his career was on the cusp.
Sopel spent the following training camp with the Detroit Red Wings, who offered him a one-year, $500,000 deal. The only problem? He'd be competing for the sixth defensive spot all season, and so he asked his agent to look around. Chicago was the landing spot. The Blackhawks needed a veteran to mentor a young group that included Keith and Brent Seabrook. But they also needed Sopel to change everything about his game -- no more power-play time, more time in his own zone. He said yes, because it bought him more time.
The move to Chicago revived his career. He played five more seasons -- winning the Cup and finishing out the string with the Atlanta Thrashers and, briefly, the Montreal Canadiens. Then he signed in the KHL to keep playing the sport he loved.
That's when his personal demons caught up with him. There is no history of alcoholism in Sopel's family. But toward the end of his career, social drinking became drinking alone. His wife and four children stayed in Chicago. His first year in Russia, he returned to visit them once. The second year, he got a divorce. For the next three years, he didn't see his kids for the full nine months that he was overseas.
After he returned to Chicago, to play a final season in the AHL, his relationships were never the same. "I was still living in fear of my learning disorders, and my future, and my life," says Sopel. "I had done something my whole life, and that was stopping, and I had to figure it out. How do I interview? How do I write a résumé? What do I do for the rest of my life? I have kids. They have clothes and books that they want. How do I provide? That spiraled me further and further into nothing good, into a dark black hole."
Hi Brent, My son has played travel ice hockey in Newark, DE, for the last two years. He is currently 7 years old and in the first grade. We just had him identified with dyslexia and dysgraphia. He is thankful to have an answer to why he had such a hard year. But he is struggling to relate to someone. Can you offer any advice to him? I've told him a lot about you to show him dyslexia won't stop him from anything in life because we found out so early. ...
Five minutes later, Sopel wrote back: "Tell him finding out this early is a great thing! No matter what, hard work in anything is what is going to make him successful." When the writer, Tiffany Buckhorn, read this, she was ecstatic. She got in her car and drove over to her son's Little League baseball practice -- and ran onto the field. "Guess who just emailed me back!" she announced. She read the email to her son. "That is so cool," he said.
Sopel plans on working on his college degree. But, like everything else in his life, it's a process. To begin taking online classes, he must pass a drug and alcohol counseling course. He still needs to write his final, which he has put off for the past few months because he has been so busy. (On top of all of this, he's waiting on paperwork to become an American citizen, which has become a dragged-out ordeal.)
Sopel is working to build a foundation that helps kids with dyslexia. This fall, he held his first hockey clinic, for 60 kids. He also invited 10 pro hockey players and 21 kids play together in a game. He has partnered with a local organization, Dyslexia Buddy Network, in the hopes of helping increase funding for resources in Illinois schools.
"We want at least one teacher in each school who is trained," he says. "If you can catch it at a young age, you learn differently, that's all."
On a rainy Wednesday this fall, inside his office beside an overpass, Sopel relaxes in his chair and reflects on how far he's come. "Everybody wants to hide from life," he says. "Life is not easy. It took me a long, long time to figure out what my life is like and what it should be like.
"There were a lot of dark holes for a long time. I found a way out of it, thank god."