Former Blackhawk Brent Sopel excited about playing in Russia
By ADAM L. JAHNS email@example.com August 7, 2011 9:58PM
PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09: Brent Sopel #5 of the Chicago Blackhawks hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime to win the Stanley Cup in Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Wachovia Center on June 9, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\GYI0060695474.jpg
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Updated: September 9, 2011 12:40AM
It’s the routine of a father and a husband that former Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel misses most when he’s on the road.
It’s waking up his children for school, feeding them breakfast, making their lunches and dropping them off.
“Just kissing them goodbye and saying, ‘Have a great day at school.’ That’s something that’s hard to not be part of,” Sopel told the Sun-Times.
A long-distance relationship is nothing new for Sopel or other players. It’s part of the lifestyle. But Sopel, an important part of the Hawks’ defense during their Stanley Cup-winning season, embarks on a more strenuous journey Monday afternoon.
Sopel departs for Novokuznetsk, Russia — located in Siberia — after signing a two-year deal with Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League. It will take Sopel about two days and four flights to reach Novokuznetsk, and it will be his first time in Russia.
His wife, Kelly, and children, Paul, Jacob, Lyla and Jayla, plan to move from their home in the western suburbs to Baldwinsville in upstate New York to be closer to Kelly’s family.
“To have one of our sons, Jake, to say, ‘Dad is going to miss my first day of high school,’ that’s when it hits you,” Kelly said. “The hardest part is there is always a question mark. You never know where their career is going to take them.”
Leaving the NHL
Sopel, 34, was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in the Hawks’ salary-cap purge last offseason, and he was an unrestricted free agent this summer.
During the Hawks’ run to the Cup, Sopel became adored by fans for blocking shots and killing penalties. His approachability was a sign of his character. But the Hawks never offered him a contract after free agency opened July 1.
“We all thought, including myself, they were going to,” said Sopel, who has played in 659 regular-season NHL games. “They kind of led on that way, that they were going to. But obviously they didn’t.
“You watch the moves that happened, and not to be part of those when you thought there was something that was going to be there, I wasn’t happy, but it is what it is.”
How did he get that impression?
“It was talking to everybody,” Sopel said.
But Sopel, who was contacted by a few NHL teams and two other KHL teams, doesn’t come off as bitter. He’s focused on the challenges ahead of him. There is excitement in his voice.
“I weighed my options in the NHL,” Sopel said. “This opportunity came along, and it was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Sopel always will cherish his time in Chicago.
“It’s good to see familiar faces from the Cup team,” said Sopel, who trained with Hawks strength coach Paul Goodman and skated with Brian Campbell, Jake Dowell, Jonathan Toews and his brother David this summer. “We had a great group of guys. Any team is going to be hard-pressed to match the camaraderie that we had.”
A hockey dad
The Sopels prefer to look at the positives, and there are plenty. Not only does Sopel get to continue his career, but his family will get to visit Europe for the first time.
Trips already are planned. They will reunite for the first time in November in Paris. Sopel will return to the United States before Christmas, and his oldest son, Paul, will accompany him back to Russia. In January, his family will meet in Italy, and Kelly will make as many individual trips as she can with their kids in school.
“They know when they’re going to see Dad, and just having that on the schedule is mentally easier for them than even last year when we didn’t know,” Kelly said. “Our daughters are most excited that they’re going to get fur coats.”
Last season, Sopel used every day off available to fly home for eight-hour visits, regardless of the cost.
“I got rejuvenated coming home,” Sopel said. “I got to see my wife and kids and give everybody hugs and kisses, things I can’t do through the phone or Internet.”
The decision to play in Russia was about his family, too.
“I’ve got to try to make ends meet for as long as I can,” Sopel said. “The fact is, the window is closing. When you have four kids, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
“That’s what I need to do as a father.”
Sopel will be blogging about his experiences in Russia on wife Kelly’s blog “Life of a Hockey Widow” (lifeofahockeywidow.typepad.com). He’s also on Twitter at @BrentSopel.