By Steele Rodin
When you hear the word champion, a few of the characteristics that spring to mind are strength, discipline, passion and sacrifice. Brent Sopel displayed all those traits throughout his hockey career, especially while winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks. But even as he climbed to the top of the hockey mountain, there was still something eating away at him that he couldn’t figure out after years of trying.
It was only shortly before that title, at age 33, that Sopel made a life-changing discovery. He took the oldest of his two daughters, Lyla, to an appointment where she was diagnosed with dyslexia after showing difficulty with reading and writing. Sopel finally understood the root of his struggles after his daughter’s diagnosis as that was the first time he had heard the word dyslexia.
“If we didn’t get her tested, and if she didn’t have it, I wouldn’t know what I have today, so I would still be struggling as well,” Sopel said. “My immediate focus was on my daughter as she was in Grade 2. Now she’s in first year of college and doing amazing, but we both have gone through a lot of hardships, and the hardest part about dyslexia is if you don’t have it you will have no idea what we go through on a daily basis.”
Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects the brain’s ability to process language and involves difficulty learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols, but it does not take away from one’s intellect.
A year after his diagnosis, Sopel decided to move to Russia in order to find himself as well as extend a hockey career he knew was coming to an end. But those cold Russian winters alone took a toll on him mentally. Being away from family was hard, and that’s when he began to drink heavily, as he had done earlier in his life.
The truth was, Sopel didn’t have to find himself, he had to fix himself.
He returned to Canada and began working on his sobriety, and in the process, he says he found his true calling in life: helping people with dyslexia. He created the Brent Sopel Foundation and released a 25-minute documentary on YouTube, Brent Sopel: Here to Change the World, in order to raise awareness. In the film, Sopel opens up about his struggles and how far he has come since retiring from hockey.
“From dealing with drugs and alcohol and not far from death to being here having this conversation with you and to release the documentary and being able to help people,” said Sopel, now 43. “I was rock-bottom, I was in an ugly place. I pulled myself out, but none of this story is about me. I tell it the way it is, the rawness of it, because that’s the truth and it’s for everybody else out there. I’ve come a long way, but to see a smile on Kaid’s face…that’s everything for me. I don’t look where I’m at today, I look where they are.”
Kaid Oliver is featured in the documentary. The 20-year-old WHL winger also struggles with dyslexia but was opposed to speaking about his disorder until an assistant coach introduced him to Sopel.
As much as Sopel wanted to help others with their struggles, he first had to deal with his own pain.
“It all started with getting sober,” Sopel said. “I ended up going to rehab, and I had to learn how to love myself and find out who I am and be OK with struggling with the simple things like reading. I had a lot of learning to do about myself and be OK with who I am…and then after that to talk about it.”
Now, after almost four years of sobriety, Sopel has become an advocate for both alcohol- and drug-addiction recovery as well as dyslexia and dysgraphia awareness, and that’s what he wants to be remembered for.
“I get more out of helping somebody than I ever did putting my skates on and playing in the NHL,” he said. “My foundation is my purpose, and I want my legacy to be that foundation and knowing that you’ve positively affected somebody’s life no matter who you are or where you are. That’s an amazing feeling, knowing they won’t have the scars that I have.”
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and, according to the Dyslexia Center of Utah, one in five people struggle with the learning disorder. There are more than 40 million people in the U.S. alone who are dyslexic, and approximately 95 percent remain undiagnosed and struggle every day without realizing.
For Sopel, he wakes up every morning with one goal in mind.
“I never want a kid to feel the way I did every day,” he said. “It’s something that can be prevented, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. My documentary is called Here to Change the World, but I have to educate the world first.”