Standing in front of his classmates at Bishop James Mahoney High School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Sopel was asked to read a single page from a book during English class.
He couldn't do it.
"Kids were laughing hysterically. It was one of the worst experiences you could have. It wasn't fun at all," said Sopel, who now lives in Hinsdale. "I just remember I was staring at a bunch of words and basically I was scared s-------."
Sopel did not know it at the time, but he had dyslexia and dysgraphia — making B's and D's backwards, and flip-flopping other letters. He wasn't diagnosed until years later, when his young daughter, Lyla, was tested for the same issues.
Sopel said he hid the problems behind his hockey stick during an 18-year professional career as a defenseman that saw him win the Stanley Cup with the 2010 Blackhawks. He rarely wrote emails because that meant reading and typing. With his three children, he almost never read them books, instead making up stories off two characters he created: "Pinky" and "Greeny."
"I had my own children's books in my head," Sopel said.
But now that his playing days are over and Sopel has entered what he described as the "real world," he's tackling his fears of reading head on — by enrolling in an online class at Georgia-based Ashworth College. Sopel last week signed up for the year-long class, which focuses on substance abuse, counseling and training.
Almost 22 years since I've been to school. Starting a new chapter of my life and facing my… https://t.co/RrwspAD9hN— Brent Sopel (@brent_sopel) November 1, 2016
He said the class represents a major obstacle as, at times, Sopel said he reads at a 20-word-per-minute rate, having to read and re-read pages several times.
"For me, obviously I'm excited that I'm facing it, but in the same breath, I'm scared because it's something I've dealt with my whole life," he said. "I'm not in the position to jump into trying to get a bachelor's degree yet. I'm not comfortable enough. I've got to face this fear little by little."
Sopel, who turns 40 on Jan. 7, also wants to figure out what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Over the summer, he joined credit card processing company MerchantPro Express as its vice president of business development. He also does TV studio work for NBC and 120 Sports.
"I have to find out what I really want to do," Sopel said. "But I love the challenge, and hopefully it will resonate with some other kids or adults, something they can relate to. And hopefully it makes my kids proud knowing I'm doing everything I can to get better."
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