PHILADELPHIA -- When Brent Sopel drifted in a shot from the point in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final last week, the Chicago Blackhawks defenceman remarked his unexpected goal shocked teammates, friends and family.
When Sopel bolted Detroit Red Wings training camp in 2007 to sign with the Blackhawks, the move didn't quite evoke shock, but it was a stunning turn of events.
Why would Sopel give up a roster spot on a team that was not only favoured to win the Stanley Cup, but in fact emerged as the league champions eight months later? Didn't he care about winning? Sure the Blackhawks had promise, but they had missed the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons.
They failed to qualify for the playoffs in Sopel's first year in Chicago, too. But really the decision was an easy one for the thoughtful defenceman who was born in Calgary and moved to Saskatoon at age three.
The Red Wings offer was for $500,000 U.S., and to be the club's sixth or seventh defenceman. The Blackhawks dangled a $1.5-million one-year deal in front of Sopel. He also was promised a top-four spot and asked to be a leader and teacher to Chicago's young defencemen as a further inducement from then general manager Dale Tallon.
"I did it for my career," Sopel said. "Sure [Detroit] won a Cup, but I would have been a sixth or seventh defenceman. I felt I had more to offer at that point.
"Hindsight is always 20-20 and if we all had that advantage we would be unbelievably successful and all millionaires. I have had a blast playing in Chicago the past three years. This has been such a great, close-knit group of guys to be with."
A different opportunity
Now Sopel, 33, is one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. If they can win Game 6 at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday, it would end a 49-year drought for the city of Chicago.
"Coming to Chicago gave me a different opportunity," Sopel said. "They obviously had a lot of young guys. But they needed some leadership and a veteran who could help teach these young guys. I was ready and willing to do both."
The attitude that he wasn't going to settle for a periphery role exhibits the kind of character Sopel brings to a dressing room. But the relocation to Chicago wasn't always a smooth as he hoped it would be.
He had some injuries. He wasn't always in the lineup. He didn't dress in a single playoff game for the Blackhawks last spring, when they lost to the Red Wings in the Western Conference final.
Sopel, simply put, had to undergo a makeover. When he came into the league as a sixth-round choice of the Vancouver Canucks in 1995, he arrived on the doorstep from the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL as an offensive-minded defenceman.
His offence peaked with 10 goals and 42 points with the 2003-04 Canucks. But after the next season was cancelled because of the lockout, the game changed to a swifter pace and maybe left the slower-skating Sopel behind.
This season, especially, Sopel won his place back in the Blackhawks lineup by changing his game to a shot-blocking and penalty-killing specialist.
"I think Sopes has nice variation in his game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think right now he's getting recognized as a penalty killer, defensive-type player, shot blocker. Had a real big series in the Nashville series. Progressed in each and every round here. He's absorbing more minutes, more responsibility as we've gone along.
"His experience and his positioning always being strong, anticipation around the net has been very good. I think that I remember back in those days watching him as a defenceman, more offensive flare to his game. I think he still has the ability to make and see plays in his gap. He scored a big goal for us last game as well. I think around the net his thought process is very high end."
And don't forget the steadying voice that Sopel has provided in the Blackhawks dressing room. Only 34-year-old backup goalie Cristobal Huet and injured defenceman Kim Johnsson, also 34, are older than Sopel on the youthful Chicago team.
"At the end of the day all I want to do is win," said Sopel, who lives year-around in Chicago with his wife Kelly. "Sometimes you have to be great in something. I was more offensively inclined in Vancouver and now I have become a shot blocker and more defensively [minded]. It has been an interesting and rewarding transition."
But still scoring the odd goal like he scored last week -- his first playoff goal in seven years -- is a welcome development.
"Shocked," said Sopel, when queried as to the reaction from teammates, friend and family when he beat Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton. "That role is in the past for me now. Back in the day it was more often."
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