VANCOUVER—At some point after the hockey season ends, Brent Sopel will venture into the public arena near his year-round residence in Chicago’s suburbs and enjoy a rite of summer we all enjoy. He will go swimming, perhaps in a pool, probably with family members.
“It will take about three weeks before I’ll be OK to look at,” he says. “Which means I hope I don’t have to think about it until July. Right now, you wouldn’t want to see me. My body has all the colors of a rainbow.”
Back in the day, which includes two different stints with tonight's Game 6 opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, Sopel would be quite adept at carrying the puck. He was a quarterback of their power play. Now, as a veteran on defense for the Blackhawks, he has evolved into more of a stay-at-home type who has become one of the NHL’s premiere shot blockers. He would rather not lead with his chin, but whatever it takes.
“To make it and stay in this league, you have to be really good at something,” Sopel says. “And on this roster, with all this young talent, that is my role. It hasn’t gotten to the point where I see pucks in my sleep, nothing like that. But you have to have the mindset that it will only hurt for a little while, and if you block a shot, you know it’s not going in your net.
"The mechanics of it are similar to playing goalie. You have to know where you are in relation your goalie, you have to try to figure out where the shooter is trying to shoot it, and then make your move. It’s all about angles.”
The angle for the home team Tuesday in Vancouver was win or be miserable for months to come. The Canucks, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference Semifinals, needed to beat the Blackhawks to stave off elimination and all the frowns that would follow. This is not like Chicago, where if the hockey team loses a game, maybe one of the baseball teams will win.
“This is IT around here,” says Sopel, who was drafted by the Canucks in 1995, then returned here in 2006-07 after stops with Los Angeles and the Islanders. “They talk hockey all the time -- in the middle of the summer, on Christmas Day, whenever. I was on a couple really good teams here, and when you don’t quite get it done this can be a tough city.
"The Canucks are playing not only for Vancouver, but for all of Canada. And there hasn’t been a Stanley Cup winner in this country since 1993, so you can see what the pressure is on them. "Montreal is playing well now, but at the start of the playoffs, if one team was expected to bring a Cup to Canada, it was the Vancouver Canucks.”
Sopel incurred a broken nose doing his thing earlier this season, an inconvenience that did not go unnoticed by son Jake, who is 11 and impressionable.
“Lacrosse, tennis, golf,” says Dad, but he doesn’t play hockey, probably for that reason. Kids see you coming home on crutches or having a hard time even getting out of bed, they want to do something else, which is fine. This is my job. I’m having as much fun with this bunch of guys as I ever have, and I’d like to keep doing it for a while longer.
"Does it take courage to stick your body in front of a puck? I like to think so, although some of my teammates might have another word for it.”