ATLANTA -- When the Atlanta Thrashers host the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, at least four denizens of greater Chicago will be rooting against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Brent Sopel played three seasons in Chicago and won a Stanley Cup there, but when the Blackhawks traded him for salary cap reasons just weeks after the deciding game, he and his wife Kelly decided to keep their family in Chicago.
The Sopels, who have an adopted 20-year-old son, a 12-year-old son and girls ages 8 and 6, decided it would be in the best interest of their family if Kelly and the children remained in Chicago. Brent had only one year left on his contract, so there were no guarantees he would stay in Atlanta beyond the current season, and his transaction record since 1998 looks something like an old suitcase covered with stamps from across the North America -- Syracuse, Vancouver, Syracuse, Vancouver, Kansas City, Vancouver, New York Islanders, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago and now Atlanta.
The 12-year-old, Jake, had been in five or six different schools, Brent said, unable to remember the exact number. The 20-year-old, Paul, is enrolled at Chicago's DePaul University, and not insignificantly, the Sopels love the education that their 8-year-old, Lyla, has been getting, as she was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia (a deficiency in the ability to write) -- just like her father.
Each member of the family has dealt with the difficulty in his or her own way as they attempt to make the best of a trying situation. Kelly decided one way to vent her frustrations would be to author a blog -- "Life of a Hockey Widow" -- for which more than 5,000 people have signed up through Brent's promotion of it using social media. On Fridays, Brent contributes to the blog in video form -- again, owing to his learning disabilities -- and right before Halloween he appeared in full costume as Batman, something his kids might get a kick out of seeing their father do from afar.
He also has made trips back, sometimes for less than 24 hours, schedule permitting -- about five or six since the start of training camp in early September.
"It was very hard," Brent said of the decision to leave his family behind. "I love my family and being with them. I'm very hands-on with my kids -- the school and lunches and things like that. It was very difficult for all of us to make that decision."
Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said he thought it was "vital" that the 33-year-old defenseman be afforded the opportunity to return to Chicago, saying, "If your family's happy, you're happy."
"Brent has been very good. He's a warrior," Ramsay said. "He competes. He gives you everything he's got. He's a good guy to have around your team."
The Thrashers certainly have benefitted -- they entered Friday's games sixth in the Eastern Conference with the help of Sopel, who plays on their third pair with Ron Hainsey. In a 4-3 overtime win against Buffalo on Oct. 29, Sopel delivered a pep talk during the first intermission that inspired the team to victory. He chose not to speak publicly about what he said.
Renewing Their Vows
Kelly is a Syracuse native who met Brent through her sister, who was a friend of his when Brent was playing in the American Hockey League for the Crunch. They began dating and he immediately informed her that if their relationship was going to be serious, then she would have to move with him every time he was recalled or traded. They were engaged three weeks later.
In March, they will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. When the unhappy news arrived in June that Brent had been traded, they decided not to inform their younger children right away. They were planning Brent's Stanley Cup party and didn't want to spoil the mood. The night before the party, they had renewed their wedding vows, as they had never had a formal wedding celebration.
"It was a special family time," Kelly said. "We didn't want to take away from that."
Eventually, they explained the situation, but the kids were used to their father being away on long road trips. The enormity of his departure did not hit until a moving truck arrived at the Sopel's suburban home one day to ship some of Brent's things to Atlanta.
The girls, in particular, have had a hard time comprehending their new reality. Kelly said one of them asked her if she were going to start dating. No, she responded, mommy and daddy are not getting divorced. Lyla, the 8-year-old, asked why she couldn't go on the road with her father if other children did with their parents. Kelly overheard Jayla, the 6-year-old, tell one of her friends, "Daddy doesn't live at home any more."
And there are unexpected emotional breakdowns. One night the family was gathered watching rock star Bret Michaels' new reality show, "Life As I Know It," that revolves around his family life. During the episode, Michaels announced that daddy had to leave, and before Kelly knew it, one of her daughters was crying, a situation that proved contagious.
The boys, who are older, understand the reasons behind the decision, but that does not mean their father's absence does not affect them. Kelly described Jake, the 12-year-old, as a "straight 'A' student." But soon after the school year started, his grades plummeted.
"Now I've got him back where he's on an even keel," Kelly said. "… We knew something was really wrong."
At one point, the children approached Kelly with a solution: They all could take a year off from school.
Around Oct. 1, Kelly was having what she described as "a really bad day" when she got the idea for the blog, which her girlfriends supported her writing, saying it would be therapeutic. Driven in part by Brent's more than 8,000 followers on Twitter (follow him at @BrentSopel), the blog has gained popularity in large part because of Kelly's willingness to draw back the curtain on a slice of life which hockey fans rarely get a glimpse of.
She also writes -- and writes well, and with brutal honesty. She told of the time a fan handed Brent $5 and told him to get his long hair cut, then asked for an autograph -- a request Brent obliged. And about the time a neighborhood store clerk cracked wise about Brent's skating ability in front of her kids.
On Nov. 2, she wrote of how the previous few days had been "emotionally draining."
"Sunday couldn't have been better," she wrote. "When I closed my eyes that night there were children in my bed; wake up and it's my Sopes!! My funk started on Sunday afternoon again. It was upsetting that he couldn't spend one full night. Sometimes I feel that we can't even relax and be a family when he comes home. You feel as if you're cramming a week into that one day. Times like this I have to grin and go with it."
She said one of her most popular posts was about one of her two trips to Atlanta and her first time visiting the wives room. In that Oct. 21 post, she wrote that she was not excited but that she was nervous.
"A new team always reminds me of your first day at a new school," she wrote. "Are the people going to be nice? Will you feel welcome? Will I get lost?
She concluded that the experience was "relaxing."
On Nov. 15, she said, two Canadian sports cable broadcasters will visit her home to do a segment about the blog.
Brent said the blog has been fun.
"We've got a great response and people are loving it and we'll continue doing it," he said.
On her visits to Atlanta, Kelly has not brought the kids, owing to their athletic schedules -- fall lacrosse and soccer.
"You've got to keep things as stable as you can and as normal as you can, so I didn't want them missing all of their activities," Brent said.
However, for 10 days the family will spend time together around Thanksgiving in Atlanta. Before that date arrives is Sopel's first meeting against his former team, on Saturday. Brent sat out Thursday's 3-0 loss to Columbus with what Ramsay called a sore back. He wants Sopel, whose even plus/minus rating leads all Thrashers defensemen and who entered Friday tied for ninth in the League with 29 blocked shots, to be in top form for Saturday.
Kelly knows what Brent will be going through.
"Obviously, for me personally, the personal stake that I have in it is Brent's emotions," she said. "He's going to be a bag of nerves, playing your ex-team and somewhere he did hope to stay. Obviously, he didn't want to leave. It's where his family is and where he won the Stanley Cup. You want him to be at peak performance. I hope he's OK and sound."
Beyond that, there are decisions about next season. Kelly said it's hard for hockey players not to take every personnel decision, well, personally.
"It's always a blow," she said. "I don't think through all the trades Brent's been through there's never a time (it wasn't). Obviously, it's a business at the end of the day and they're a product. It's hard to take. Brent will always take it personally. I explain; I calm him down. It's not anything that has anything to do with you. It's still a blow to their egos."
With family as important to them as it is, Kelly said their children will decide how much longer Brent continues to play. But Chicago is and will remain their home. They bought the house next door to the rental property they initially lived in when they first moved to the area, razed it and built a new one, giving their life there a sense of permanence.
So for as long as Brent keeps playing, Kelly and the kids will have to make the best of her situation as a hockey widow for nine months out of the year.