Former Vancouver Canucks defenseman Brent Sopel has called it a career.
Lots of Canucks fans probably don’t think of Sopel as a Canucks defensemen first and foremost, and that’s fair enough, he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks after all. He was a Canucks draft pick though, and ranks in the top-20 defensemen in Canucks franchise history in every major statistical category (games played, plus/minus, goals scored, points, game winning goals and on and on).
Sopel was quietly a big part of the beloved West Coast Express teams. He also played a small and indirect role in my development as a hockey fan and pundit. I’ll share the anecdote with you after the jump.
This happened over 12 years ago, and I was 15. So bear in mind that I’m probably not the most reliable narrator of events, and also that I was a very stupid 15-year-old.
It was a day in mid-January of 2003 and at my high school – Collingwood prep in West Vancouver – it was career’s day. My school was on the ostentatious side and had a habit of bringing out the big guns when possible.
Career’s Day seemed to be particularly important to them in this regard and we often had a celebrity of some sort – in my time there we had Goldie Hawn and Ed Jovanovski among others – come in to address the entire school in the gymnasium for career’s day, before going on to be briefed on life as a Howe St. trader or an amoral litigator in one of the class rooms.
The celebrity was never announced beforehand. It was always a surprise.
So on this particular Thursday I filed into the gym and took a seat on the bleachers, and out comes then-Canucks general manager Brian Burke to discuss career related topics like being dedicated and hard working.
Burke’s a great speaker and his particular story is pretty fascinating. I’m not going to look up the details specifically, because they don’t really matter, but Burke comes from a gigantic family and basically every single one of his siblings – himself included – managed to get into Ivy League schools on scholarships.
During his talk Burke really only discussed hockey as a vehicle for staying fit, learning leadership skills and potentially getting a scholarship. He didn’t discuss the sport, or any particulars about the sport, as an industry really
At the time I was 15, and I loved hockey. I also thought of myself as something of a class clown (really I was just a loud, stupid bully), and took pride in my ability to stir the pot. I guess I still do.
So Burke’s talk ends and he invites the students to share any questions they might have. On this particular mid-January day – and I can actually tell you the exact date was January 17, 2003 – we were less than two months out from the March 11, 2003 NHL trade deadline, and the Canucks were likely to be buyers.
As everyone else was hoping desperately that no one would ask a question so that the assembly would end and we could all go to recess, I put my hand straight up in the air. Burke pointed at me, so I said, barely able to contain myself:
“What are you going to do at the upcoming NHL trade deadline?”
Burke laughed, at first. Perhaps it was funny to him that he gave all this great advice about working hard and staying focused, and so of course this teenager’s first impulse is to ask him about hockey trades.
“Well I don’t know yet,” he replied, “what would you LIKE me to do at the NHL trade deadline?”
Now this is where I made a mistake. I’m 15, and I’m too stupid to understand that this is potentially a cool opportunity to get Burke to talk about general hockey philosophy or hockey management strategies. Today I’d handle it much better, than I did at the time.
At the time I just yelled out:
“Trade Brent Sopel!”
I don’t remember the specifics of what transpired next, but Burke didn’t obviously appreciate the comment. He defended his player and ripped me for asking a dumb question at length. I deserved it.
As I recall, I left the assembly filled with some sort of misguided juvenile pride. I’d managed to turn “friendly advice giving Brian Burke” into “press conference Brian Burke”, the irascible, loquacious character I enjoyed watching on television.
That night the Canucks visited the Blackhawks, and I remember it well. Why? Well, within 10 hours of me ripping on Sopel in front of his general manager and in front of my entire high school, the Canucks defender went out and scored the game winner.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I heard about it at school the next day. A few times.
Sopel, who is now 38, reinvented himself through the course of his career. From the marauding offensive type that he was in his early years in Vancouver – his defensive errors annoyed me enormously as a teenager, now I’m sure I’d be defending him as the sort of puck-mover who helps his team generate more than they give up – to the steady, third-pairing shutdown guy he was when he won his Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, Sopel’s game matured.
He picked up all of the veteran tricks:
Sopel was also one of the best I’ve ever seen at making it look like he was skating back hard, but really wasn’t, to keep an icing alive.
— Mike Halford (@HalfordPHT) February 27, 2015
He took the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Pride Parade:
Courtesy: the Hockey Hall of Fame
Sopel had a few great seasons, but he wasn’t a great player. He did, however, have a great NHL career.
And, for me, well, he indirectly played some small role in my maturation as a person, as a hockey fan and as a hockey writer.
Our heartfelt congratulations to him.