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Dave Feschuk: ‘It has to change the world.’ Brent Sopel says nothing will be the same about the Blackhawks’ 2010 season after Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual abuse

Hockey lore will tell you there’s an unbreakable bond formed between teammates in the travails of a championship season.

“Win today, and we’ll walk together forever,” was how Hall of Fame coach Fred Shero once framed the relationship.

But for at least one member of the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the franchise’s decade-plus coverup of team member Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of the club’s video coach has changed the nature of that eternal stroll of champions.

“Winning that Stanley Cup will always be a part of me. I’ll always love my teammates, what we went through,” Brent Sopel said in an interview this week. “But at the same time, it’ll never be the same — nothing will ever be the same — after hearing what Kyle went through.”

Sopel has been lauded as one of the rare good guys in the Blackhawks scandal, the veteran defenceman who, in the midst of that run to the Stanley Cup, heard about the burden Beach was carrying and, along with teammate Nick Boynton, brought it to the attention of management. Boynton has since said “everybody” on the team was aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct against video coach Brad Aldrich. Sopel has publicly encouraged other teammates to do “the right thing” and tell the truth about what they knew. But nobody else has said much. As an outspoken outlier in a culture of silence, Sopel said he’s not interested in taking credit.

“Every single one of us in this hockey world let Kyle down,” Sopel said this week. “Every one of us needs to look in the mirror and how we can get better.”

The 44-year-old Sopel is vowing to go beyond the usual post-crises platitudes. He met NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Thursday to discuss potential avenues for positive change in the wake of the Blackhawks debacle. Though Sopel, through his manager Mike Sanow, declined to speak to the specifics of the conversation, he characterized it as a “positive” meeting with the league’s two top executives.

Sopel has a sit-down scheduled next week with leadership at the NHL Players’ Association, which has also come under fire for its inaction on Beach’s behalf. Which, for Sopel, only begins to scratch the surface of his day-to-day grind. Though he retired from the sport in 2015 after playing 659 games in the NHL, Sopel has been busy since as the founder of the Brent Sopel Foundation. Initially launched to provide support for people with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability with which Sopel himself has long struggled, Sopel said he has since expanded the foundation’s scope to include support for those who battle drug and alcohol addiction and, in light of Beach’s story, support for survivors of sexual abuse.

“I get calls from around the world. My phone doesn’t stop ringing,” Sopel said. “People look at me, ‘How do you handle it?’ But it’s my purpose. I want to leave a legacy in this world, and for it not to be about hockey.

“(Beach’s story) has to change the game. It has to change the world. It’s a negative and we’ve got to find a way to turn it into a positive.”

Former Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Sopel, speaking about the type of abuse Kyle Beach allegedly dealt with, says “there are many more sympathetic ears than there were. But there needs to be way more than there are.”

As a player, Sopel said, he competed more than once with “broken bones” and “a back out of place” because, he said, he was “petrified” of the prospect of life beyond the game. Perhaps as a side effect of that pain-riddled existence, Sopel said he has long battled the ravages of substance abuse, five years sober but forever on alert.

“I live it every day. It’s hard to stay sober,” Sopel said. “People ask me, ‘What would you go back and tell your younger self?’ And I say, ‘Nothing.’ Because I needed to go through every one of these things in my life to get where I am today, to have the strength to back Kyle.”

Sopel said he’s well aware that Beach’s horrible experience, as impactful as it has been in its uncovering, is hardly a one-off. Never mind the litany of sexual-abuse stories that have made headlines around the sports world in recent years. Hockey has its own long and dark history in the realm. It was nearly a quarter century ago that Laura Robinson wrote a groundbreaking book about sexual abuse in hockey. And while that book, “Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport,” specifically focused on the disturbingly broken culture of junior hockey, Robinson said that it was only after the book’s publication that she learned of a raft of similar stories.

“I remember a very well-known Canadian male in political circles, he told me, ‘(Sexual abuse) was the reason I quit hockey in bantam and never went into a rink again,’ ” Robinson said in a recent interview. “I had the husband of another well-known female member of Parliament tell me the same thing. These stories, there are so many …”

So many stories of abuse, too few stories of support. Although, as Robinson pointed out, it’s worth remembering the members of the mid-1990s Calgary Flames who, after teammate Sheldon Kennedy shared the story of his abuse at the hands of Graham James, provided a sympathetic ear.

“There was always a player by (Kennedy’s) side. They took him out to a coffee shop. They wouldn’t let him go home by himself,” Robinson said. “How come when we have a great example of what a teammate really does that we end up, 15 years later, with (players on the Blackhawks allegedly hurling homophobic slurs at Beach)? What happened? Because after Sheldon and after Theo (Fleury, another survivor of abuse), things were supposed to change … What happened? I think that homophobic, toxic masculinity, that culture, is very difficult to extinguish.”

Sopel said he didn’t personally witness the homophobia Beach says he endured in the midst of that Stanley Cup run. But more than 10 years later, Sopel said he was heartened to see the positive reaction this summer when Luke Prokop, a prospect with the Nashville Predators, became the first active player under NHL contract to say he is gay. Sopel, who brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago’s Pride parade in 2010, said it’s a sign of progress, however incremental.

Still, the memory of 2010 will never be the same, not after the scandal of 2021. But if those Cup-winning Blackhawks no longer walk together forever, Sopel is hoping the hockey world can talk together more often about the things that brought us here.

“For myself, I’ve always been open. It doesn’t matter what race, what colour — we’re all human,” Sopel said. “I believe the world’s changing. There are many more sympathetic ears than there were. But there needs to be way more than there are … I can’t comment on what my teammates are saying or doing. I can only say that I’m here for Kyle, and what he went through. I believe in him, and I support him, and every victim out there.”

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