As Brent Sopel retires, impact on LGBT hockey not forgotten

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As Brent Sopel retires, impact on LGBT hockey not forgotten
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Andrew Sobotka remembers the power of the Stanley Cup.

He remembers hockey’s Holy Grail rolling down the streets of Chicago in the 2010 Pride Parade. He remembers watching people who might not otherwise attend a LGBT event lighting up when the float caught their eyes.

“Everyone who is a Chicagoan was happy to have the Cup there,” said Sobotka, then president of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, “and it continued the conversation about LGBT athletes.”

The Stanley Cup was featured in the parade because the Chicago Blackhawks won it that season, and because defenseman Brent Sopel believed it would be an important way to honor a friend and his dedication to the LGBT movement.

Sopel, who retired from hockey on Friday after 18 seasons as a pro, had been traded to the Atlanta Thrashers after the season but returned to Chicago in June 2010 for the parade. He wore his Hawks sweater with a shamrock over his heart, inscribed with the initials “BB” for the late Brendan Burke.

"I wasn't here to advocate (anything), but if coming here helps break down walls in the meantime, so be it. I was here for Brendan," said Sopel at the parade. "I hope he is smiling (from heaven)."

Burke, the son of Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, died in an auto accident earlier that year. "He was a very unique individual," Sopel said. "For him to come out, and then die a few months later ... when you're a parent and you have to bury a kid, it's just heartbreaking."

Sobotka’s organization requested that the Blackhawks have a presence in the parade that year. Sopel answered the call, and team president John McDonough made a special arrangement for the Cup to be flown from Los Angeles, the site of the NHL draft that year, 15 hours earlier than scheduled so it could appear in the parade.

It was the first time a professional sports trophy from the “big four” had appeared in a Pride Parade.

“It hasn’t happened since,” said Sobotka.

While that might seem like a step back for LGBT fans and athletes, Sobotka said many barriers have been broken since the Stanley Cup appeared in the Pride Parade.

Today, athletes give interviews to mainstream and LGBT publications without causing a stir. Players offer support for LGBT causes without creating headlines – in Chicago, he cites Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp as vocal supporters.

This June, around the Pride Parade, the Chicago Gay Hockey Association plans on having a tournament. Sobotka intends on asking Sopel to attend, along with other advocates in the NHL like Tommy Wingels of the San Jose Sharks.

The ultimate goal, however, is to just to be seen as hockey players.

“One of the things I’ve heard echoed from other groups is that we’re looking for this to become a non-story,” Sobotka said. “Some day, we don’t want to even exist.”

It all starts with acknowledgement and respect, continues with conversation and breaking down barriers.

Brent Sopel bringing the Stanley Cup to the Pride Parade may not define his 18 years as a pro or 12 years in the NHL – nor does it erase some of the other questionable stances he’s taken – but it remains an important moment for LGBT hockey players and fans.

“It was a really big time. Not just for my organization, but for the city, and for fans around the country,” said Sobotka.