CHICAGO — Brent Sopel feels like a kid again.
“I’m 46 going on 6,” Sopel said.
The former Blackhawks Stanley Cup defender is out on the ice with the Wolfpack Hockey Club in Hoffman Estates four times a week, teaching these young players about more than just stick handling and skating.
“All I’m trying to do is fill up their self-esteem tank, have fun, and teach them without them knowing it,” Sopel said.
“Always keeping your head up and if things don’t go your way learning lesson from it,” said 14-year-old Wolfpack player Noah Mortimer about Sopel’s advice.
“When I didn’t have a good day in school, he said it’s okay, people just have other feelings and you can share feelings,” said another Wolfpack player, 7-year-old Alex Klimko.
Since August, Sopel has worked with the Wolfpack on what he calls a first of kind program focused on athletes’ mental health.
“I call it the ‘Why’ program,” Sopel said. “Why did something happen? Why is something happening? People don’t take the time to dive in. I asked families do they have mental health or do kids have learning disorders. If you don’t have something you don’t know. So far very successful.”
“I don’t think kids see it as a mental health aspect, they see it as I’ve got this positive role model, he’s on the ice with us and this is awesome,” said Kimberly Zielinski, who’s son Dylan is an 8th grader on the team.
It’s a personal matter for Sopel, who battled alcoholism and lived his whole life with undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia until a decade ago when his daughter, struggling in school, got tested for both, and the symptoms sounded awfully familiar to Sopel.
“At that point in time I was happy for my daughter. It really flipped a switch when hockey was over, I had to get sober and figure out I learn differently. Everyone has skills and strengths, growing up I only had one skill and that was on the ice and now in the real world you have to have more than that.”
Six-year-old Everett has ADHD, and his mom Linda says Sopel’s teaching style has been a breakthrough.
“Everything resonated with me,” said Linda De Villiers. “Feeling insecure in the classroom. It was so interesting to me that he had such heights but also dyslexia. He said what he wanted to do with the kids, he looked at them as an individual. They try to build up your self-esteem and create a safe environment for anybody and I found it fascinating because it’s completely different from any other rink that we’ve seen.”
To Sopel, “different” is good, as this former hockey tough guy has shared his vulnerabilities and wants to inspire the next generation to always embrace their true self.
“We all put our pants on the same way, we are all human beings,” Sopel said. “That’s what this world is about. It’s got zero compassion in it anymore, and I’m just trying to show some extra compassion and love and these kids are loving it.”
You can visit Brentsopelfoundation.org for more information on the work Sopel is doing to support those struggling with dyslexia and mental health illnesses.