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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 11:11

Sopel russian to get to full-time coaching or broadcasting

Written by  Brad Brown
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He doesn’t earn many (any?) comparisons to the Russian Rocket.

And he cheerfully denies holding any sort of foreign rock star-like status.
But Brent Sopel admits he’s got it pretty good in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Good enough at least for the former Swift Current Broncos defenceman to commit to two more seasons in Russia, after signing a new contract with Salavat Yulaev Ufa earlier this spring.
“Our stadium holds about 8,000 fans and we’re sold out most nights,” Sopel said in an interview last week. “It’s really hit-and-miss depending on the city, but we have some real passionate fans. There’s a cheering section and they’ve got your jerseys on, and they have drums and whistles and flags, so for that aspect it’s awesome.”
A little less awesome is spending over half the year nearly 9,000 kilometres, as the crow flies, from his wife and four children.
An feature from November 2010 detailed the struggles Sopel’s family had adjusting when he was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Atlanta Thrashers earlier that year, a mere 1,200 kilometres away.
But with a Stanley Cup win (Chicago, 2010) checked off his bucket list, his contract expired and the second NHL lockout of his career still a year away but appearing certain, Sopel decided in 2011 that the KHL was his only real choice.
“I knew there was going to be a lockout. Really everybody did, but was I was very, very positive that it was going to be near a whole season lost and at my age I didn’t want to lose that.”
Sopel signed a two-year contract with Metallurg Novokuznetsk and, through no fault of his new team, was left wondering almost immediately what he’d gotten himself into.
“I was sitting in the airport in Moscow waiting to board a plane when I found out what had happened,” Sopel said of the 2011 plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. “Lokomotiv was only a five-hour bus ride from exactly where I was sitting and I knew some of those guys on that plane. It was the worst thing ever.
“We were all afraid after what had just happened,but our team made sure everybody was comfortable and did everything they needed to do. Some teams changed planes and did that kind of stuff to make sure it was easier on guys and reassure different guys, but no matter where you were it wasn’t easy that’s for sure.”
Sopel went on to post 19 points in 94 games before moving Jan. 31 at this year’s KHL’s transfer deadline to Ufa.
He added two more assists in Salavat’s remaining four regular season games and added four goals and an assist in 14 playoff games as Salavat lost to Ak Bars Kazan in Game 7 of the second round.
“I was welcomed with open arms because I had won that Stanley Cup and they all dream of that over there, so they’ve been very welcoming,” Sopel said of his Russian teammates.
His new opponents? Not so much, though Sopel isn’t entirely sure on that one.
“It’s funny when you’re talking another language some of the first words you learn,” he said with a laugh. “I know some Russian where I can start beaking them. They’re pretty straight to the point and their chirping skills aren’t anywhere near what ours are, but I don’t know the language that good to dissect everything they’re saying to me either.”
There have been other adjustments as well.
“You have to shake every guy’s hand whenever you see him,” said Sopel, the only North American on his team. “So when you get to the rink in the morning you have to walk around and shake every person’s hand. And if one guy is not at the rink that day and he shows up a couple of hours later, he has to go shake everybody’s hand too. No matter where you are — you shake everyone’s hand.”
Sopel played 174 games for the Broncos from 1994-97 before adding 659 more over 12 seasons in the NHL with Vancouver, the New York Islanders, Los Angeles, Vancouver again, Chicago, Atlanta and Montreal.
Even with the ink barely dry on his new contract, Sopel is starting to lay the foundation for life after hockey.
He is running two Academy of Defense hockey schools this summer, including one in his hometown of Saskatoon, with an eye toward expansion in the near future.
He also speaks openly about possibly pursuing a career in broadcasting or coaching, another reason for his newly-extended stay halfway around the world.
“I’d won the Stanley Cup, so I’d already conquered that one lifetime goal and I wanted to broaden my horizons in terms of seeing the game of hockey from a different view on a bigger ice surface which would hopefully apply into coaching or broadcasting after hockey,” Sopel said.

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