The NHL is currently enjoying the best run of its existence, and former hockey players are enjoying a new lease on life thanks to the same game they once played.
In honor of Hockey Hall of Famer Brent Sopel’s induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 19, 2017, we are taking a look back at his remarkable career. From his humble beginnings in the player’s developmental program with the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1980s to his leadership as the Director of Hockey Development for the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit’s assistant general manager, Brent’s contributions to the game are well known in the hockey community.
TAMPA, Florida. — When Robbie Hall signed a new contract with the Atlanta Gladiators of the ECHL in 2020, he felt like he was living his dream. The money wasn’t great – about $500 a week before taxes – but it was double the $250 a week he was making in the SPHL.
This was my third year in professional hockey, said Hall, a defenseman who played four years of Division III hockey at SUNY Brockport. That’s three years longer than I thought it would be. I followed my dream and was able to do exactly what I wanted to do.
Then it was COWID’s turn. The Gladiators declined to participate in the 2020-21 season, citing economic feasibility.
It forced me to retire, Hall said.
He was 28 years old.
Although I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything else, I really feel like hockey has left me behind, Hall said. We spend all our time playing hockey, training and becoming the best athletes we can be, but we miss out on the opportunity for entry level jobs and promotions. Many of my peers may have homes and families now, but their entire lives are lost. I’m still trying to find my way.
Hall grew up near Chicago and spent most of his summers doing construction work. He knew it wasn’t for him. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do either, he said. Hockey is really all I’ve ever known in my life.
Hall studied criminal justice in college, so he began applying to police departments in and around Chicago.
He eventually got a job in a golf shop to save time. One day he got a call from Brent Sopel, a 12-year NHL veteran. Hall and Sopel met while training at the same gym in Chicago.
I have an opportunity for you, Sopel said. Come and work with me.
It was exactly the kind of lifeline Hall needed.
Sopel is best known for winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ten years later, he moved from Chicago to Tampa to work for a solar energy company. Even he can’t believe the latest twist in his career.
I’m a farmer from Saskatchewan who doesn’t like moisture or water, says Sopel, now 44. Florida is the last place on earth I thought I would live.
After leaving the NHL as a defenseman in 2011, Sopel has struggled to find his way on his own. He treated his undiagnosed dyslexia and his drug and alcohol addiction. In 2016, Sopel went into rehab. He’s been sober ever since.
Passionate about helping others, Sopel set up a foundation for people with dyslexia. He has mentored dozens of people – inside and outside of hockey – and helped dozens of others rehabilitate. It was not easy to find a paid job.
According to Sopel, only a small percentage of hockey players have enough money to not work. Still, you need a goal every day when you get up. And most of us have no – we have no work experience, we have no education. And no one in this world, especially in business, cares if you played hockey. All that matters is whether we make them money or not?
After coming out of rehab, Sopel worked part-time for a coconut water company. Then he took over the roofing. While working on the roof, Sopel learned more and more about solar energy.
According to Sopel, the latest stimulus package includes a 26 percent federal rebate for solar. So you can see where the government is going.
Through one of his protégés, Sopel contacted Brock Sottile, former junior hockey player and founder and CEO of Horizon Energy Solutions. Sopel took a position as supervisor of the company’s Florida operations, then launched the idea: What if he turns his attention to former hockey players?
His boss thought it was a good idea.
What you miss most about the sport is the camaraderie between peers and rivals, and our activity is much like hockey: You are only as strong as your weakest player or your weakest team, Sottile said. That way we can constantly push ourselves to compete and improve. It also made sense because there are a lot of minor leaguers in Florida and a lot of guys that have played there that are struggling right now and could use that revenue stream that we can provide.
Horizon has offices in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California and is looking to expand. The company has 82 full-time employees. Sopel brought about 10 people (although Hall is the only one living in his house). Sopel contacted the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, which represents players in the AHL and ECHL, and asked to speak with union officials. Hall introduced him to former teammates who were in a similar situation.
Sopel called the phones to track down former players who felt trapped. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Brad Lukowitz will join the organization this month and eventually lead the Texas operation.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with guys who don’t see life after hockey, Sopel said. I wanted to start a family business and get involved in a way that no one else has or will.
A seven-part focus series on what goes on behind the scenes on and off the ice and in the locker room where you get a pass on the game during the Stanley Cup hunt. Watch ESPN+
He finds the strength to use the mindset of an athlete.
I approach each gate as if it were the next stroke at golf. Forget the last shot, you can only focus on the next one.
Sottile does not hesitate to hire people with little traditional experience.
I think you can handle a lot of things yourself these days, he said. And for someone who doesn’t have a college degree, I find Brent to be one of the most compassionate and intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.
It is this relative experience that Sottil believes is equally important.
When you have a hockey background, you get to interact with people from a young age and learn to represent yourself. Their image is constantly in focus and needs to be protected, but also improved and developed, he said. They also have the work ethic and resilience to succeed in a variety of industries, not just my company or the energy sector. If the former hockey player reading this needs to remember anything, it’s this: You shouldn’t feel like you have to create a new identity with a hockey mentality.
Mr. Sopel does not know how long Hall will live with him – or how long he will work with him. He just wanted to help open a new door and see where it would lead.
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