‘Dumb,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy’ replay in mind of ex-NHLer with dyslexia

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Former NHLer discusses living with dyslexia
WATCH ABOVE: Former NHLer Brent Sopel talks about living undiagnosed with dyslexia – Mar 13, 2020

Former Stanley Cup champion and dyslexia advocate Brent Sopel, 43, says three words still replay in his head daily — dumb, stupid and lazy.

Dyslexia is a condition that makes it difficult to read, write and spell. Fifteen to 20 per cent of the world’s population has some of the symptoms, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

The Saskatoon-raised NHL alumnus has dyslexia but didn’t know it until adulthood when his daughter was diagnosed a decade ago. It was then he realized his years in school had been negatively impacted.

“Struggling with something as simple as reading in kindergarten. You can see your friends and everybody reading and you’re struggling … you get called ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy.’ And those are the three words that replay in my head every single day,” Sopel said.

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“[If] kids are struggling, get them tested because you never, as a kid, forget the one time getting laughed at. That plays in my head, standing in front of Grade 9 class and reading. Kids laughing. It still sticks with me.”

“It’s that self-esteem that really nobody understands. The simplest things you struggle at, really take a toll on a kid.”

As he struggled during his education, Sopel leaned toward hockey.

“There’s no question I was as successful as I was playing 18 years of pro hockey because of my dyslexia,” Sopel said.

“I was never the most skilled but I’ve always had to work harder than everybody, with my dyslexia, with reading, with everything. My work ethic was definitely the reason I succeeded as long as I did in hockey.”

Sobel learned to skate in the Bridge City and went on to play in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League with the Saskatoon Contacts and Saskatoon Blazers. In the Western Hockey League, he honed his skills as a member of the Saskatoon Blades and Swift Current Broncos.

He was drafted into the NHL in 1995, playing around 660 games and recording 218 points as a defenceman in the league. His resume of teams includes the Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens.

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“When you win the [2010] Stanley Cup in Chicago, obviously that’s a highlight of my career… my name’s on the Stanley Cup and visible for 65 years is something pretty special,” Sopel said.
Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Sopel in an NHL hockey game in Denver, Colo., on Jan. 18, 2008. David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Now retired from professional hockey, Sopel lives in Chicago and dedicates his time to advocacy on behalf of dyslexic children and their families.

He also created the Brent Sopel Foundation to provide financial and educational assistance to help students with dyslexia fulfill their potential through early detection and intervention.

“First-and-foremost, it’s educating the world that it’s a learning difference, not a learning disorder. We just learn a little bit differently,” Sopel said.

“I never want another person to feel the way I do every single day… there’s a lot of smart kids that learn differently and have the ability to change the world but won’t get the opportunity because they’re not getting taught the right way.”

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Dyslexia Canada executive director Christine Staley said there’s no training for the country’s teachers for them to learn how to identify a child with dyslexia or teach them.

“There is very little being provided in terms of resources to help those teachers attain the knowledge, or provide proper support once they do. There are only a few schools in Canada that require mandatory identification. The provision of accommodations is not done in a universal or adequate manner,” Staley said.

“With all of that said, a child with dyslexia can, in fact, learn to read and be just as successful as their peers. It requires identifying these children early and providing evidenced-based instruction, called structured literacy. It is really focusing more on phonics.”

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Sopel said mental health issues can arise from having dyslexia.

“Depression, anxiety, suicide, and 65 per cent are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I am three-and-a-half years sober. I went to rehab. I was not far from death with the amount of drugs and alcohol I was a part of and that was masking all the pain,” he said.

“It is something that is behind the scenes so people don’t understand. There’s a lot of embarrassment and shame.”

He hopes, in the near future, to have a platform where other dyslexic hockey players feel comfortable enough to reach out and talk with him.

“There is a lot of stigma that surrounds dyslexia. If you cannot read [and do not know why especially] you are thought to be stupid. Once you do know, although it is getting better, there are still many people that believe it is a sign of a lack of intelligence,” Staley said.

“Forty per cent of children with learning disabilities suffer from mental health issues and they have 46 per cent higher odds of attempting suicide.”

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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