Brent Sopel helps kids play defense, lets guard down about dyslexia battle

VERNON HILLS, Ill. – Hockey is getting faster and more skilled with a growing emphasis on scoring.

Somebody has to play defense, though.

Brent Sopel anchored the blue line in the NHL for more than a decade, most notably for the Blackhawks during their first Stanley Cup run.

Now he’s helping the next generation of defenseman hone their craft at his Academy of Defense hockey camp at The Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills.

"I know what forwards are trying to do, but that's not my specialty," noted Sopel. "I wanted to bring something I did my whole life and bring it to the kids. It's a defensive camp that you don't find in a lot of places."

Sopel's coaching style is a bit unconventional. Instead of trying to build off what campers already know, he breaks down their fundamentals to the bare bones.

"I always say you can't get to two until you get to one. I'm working on one right now with these kids. We're taking it really slow. Over these five days, they probably won't break a sweat. Why? Because it's just slow. It's the building blocks. It's the foundation to get to that point. To build a house, you have to have a foundation. That's where we are right now, building that foundation."

It took hitting rock bottom to rebuild Sopel's foundation.

In March, he opened up about his struggles with alcoholism, which he believes was a direct result of his learning disabilities.

Sopel didn't know he suffered from dyslexia and dysgraphia until hearing the symptoms related to his daughter's diagnosis.

Fortunately, she got the help she needed.

Sopel's only saving grace was hockey, providing an outlet for his frustration while falling behind in school.

"If I didn't have hockey, I guarantee I wouldn't be here today. You have zero self-esteem when you sit there and you try to get through it and you can't, you can't, you can't. Then your teacher's like, 'You're behind, you're behind' and they slam you with more books. That doesn't do anything. It makes you feel worse."

Sopel is doing his best to end the vicious cycle for kids in a similar situation, advocating for groups like The Dyslexia Buddy Network and Understood.org.

"Everybody thinks dyslexia is just flipping numbers and letters. There's a lot more to it than that. You always talk about autism awareness - that's 1 in 65 kids. Dyslexia is 1 in 5. I struggle with dyslexia to this day writing emails. Siri's my best friend even though she doesn't like me sometimes with my Canadian accent. It's a struggle for me every single day. If we can raise awareness and get these kids help at a young age, there's no problem. You can figure it out. There's ways to get around it. It's the kids that don't understand what it is and the teachers that don't understand what they have and the kids that are making fun of them. The self-esteem goes right into the tank. Then, it's just trouble.