As the Beacon College Class of 2024 sat in the physically-distanced audience under the big-top near Beacon Hall, former National Hockey Leaguer Brent Sopel quickly skated past faculty on the dais distinguishably garbed in their academic robes and took the podium.
Impressed with their academic bona fides, Sopel — who won the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks — acknowledged his highly-credentialed hosts and then slapped home a winning opening line.
“I’m just a hockey player … with a learning disorder. Guess what? I just like you guys,” he said, pointing out at the sea of about 150 faces gathered August 17 for the college’s Convocation.
Sopel was the featured speaker at the annual exercise that marks the ceremonial start of the academic year for first-year students at Beacon College, America’s first accredited baccalaureate institution dedicated to educating primarily students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences.
“Today is the day where your new world starts,” Sopel said. “There’s one place in this world that I’ve only felt comfortable and that’s on this campus. Why’s that? Because I’m just like you. I struggle with this and that, and that’s okay. I’m good at other things and that’s what you have to do.”
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sopel suffered humiliation and lived through some of the worst moments of his life in the classroom when called to do something he just couldn’t do — read.
But he didn’t know why.
His self-esteem plummeted.
The only place he felt comfortable — and accomplished — was on the ice.
Sopel went on to star as a National Hockey League defenseman with the Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Atlanta Thrashers, Montreal Canadians, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
He retired from professional hockey in 2015.
It was only after Sopel sought answers for his daughter whose struggles mirrored his.
Her diagnosis: dyslexia.
With that, for Sopel, it all made sense.
He was then 32, and finally, he understood.
He was dyslexic.
Dyslexia runs in families. About 40 percent of siblings of children with dyslexia also experience reading issues, as do as many as 49 percent of their parents, according to Understood, a national organization that serves families of kids who learn and think differently.
For all those years Sopel hadn’t a clue he was dyslexic, a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading, yet, he acknowledged that he still unknowingly reaped benefits because of it.
“My career was as long as it was because of my dyslexia, because I had to work that much harder to get where I was,” he said. “It was nice to find out I wasn’t stupid. My daughter was able to get diagnosed at an early age and we were able to get her the help she needed. She graduated high school last year and it felt like a victory as a parent, but she did a great job and worked hard for her achievement.”
While on the Beacon campus, Sopel sat for an interview with Beacon communications director Darryl E. Owens for the Radio Beacon podcast interview program, “Long Story Short.” He also filmed a segment the Beacon College-produced neurodiversity television program, “A World of Difference.”
Once Sopel hung up his skates, he slid into a new mission of putting down misconceptions about dyslexia.
He’s become a leading dyslexia advocate through his work with The Brent Sopel Foundation. Thanks to his new documentary, “Brent Sopel: Here to Change the World,” he’s barnstorming the country sharing his story.
“I’m not a hero, I’m just on a mission to make sure no kid ever feels the way I did,” Sopel said. “You may struggle but you can excel at other things. You’re going to be great. Believe in yourself.”
Asked about the documentary title, he smiled, the intensity that marked his play on the ice ablaze on his face.
“It’s a high goal to change the world but we take it one step at a time,” Sopel said.
For more information on Brent Sopel, visit https://www.brentsopelfoundation.org/