Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brent Sopel rides with the Stanley Cup at the Pride parade

Stanley Cup in 2010 Chicago Pride Parade w/Brent Sopel

The Chicago Blackhawks made a lot of history this past season. Brent Sopel made a little bit more this weekend when he rode with the Stanley Cup in the 2010 Chicago Pride parade, held this afternoon. 

Mr. Sopel isn't gay; he's happily married, and has four kids. And although Sopel was traded just a couple days ago to the Atlanta Thrashers, he still rode in the parade as a representative of the Blackhawks. He did the parade to honor his friend, Toronto GM Brian Burke, and Burke's late son, Brendan - a young athlete who came out as gay, only to die in an automobile accident three months later. Sopel commented:

"When Brendan came out, Brian stood by him, and his whole family stood by him, like every family should," said Sopel. "We teach our kids about accepting everybody. Tolerate everybody, to understand where everyone is coming from."

Brian Burke was very touched by Sopel's choice, stated the Chicago Tribune/WGN:
"Our entire family is touched by the kindness of Brent and Kelly Sopel, and that of the Blackhawks," Burke said Thursday. "This is not a small step -- it's a bold and important one. We are grateful that a statement of this magnitude is being made by the Sopels, the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League."

In the highly machismo world of professional sports, it is nearly impossible to find athletes who have publicly outed themselves. If any do, it is generally after their professional sports career has ended; a few notable exceptions include Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Sheryl Swoopes, all of whom came out as lesbians at the peak of their career. 

It's hard to understand why people would be more understanding of female athletes behind lesbian than male athletes being gay. Perhaps it is because being a professional athlete is perceived as the pinnacle of manliness (yes, even sometimes for women), that the idea that a favorite male athlete might be gay seems difficult for some people to handle. 

By being willing to openly support equality for all athletes, Brent Sopel joins the few straight athletes who have publicly shown support for gay athletes. Scott Fujita, star linebacker for the NFL's New Orleans Saints, supported the National Equality March last October. Fellow NFL linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, asked "Same sex marriages: what's the big deal?" last spring.

Stanley Cup in 2010 Chicago Pride Parade w/Brent Sopel

The Chicago Gay Hockey Association had extended an invitation to the Blackhawks to ride in the parade, although they had not expected the team to accept the offer. Members of the CGHA and supporters of the CGHA marched and skated alongside the float.

Stanley Cup in 2010 Chicago Pride Parade w/Brent Sopel

By appearing in Chicago's Pride parade, this marked the first time in the Stanley Cup's history that it appeared in a gay-themed event.

Cubs float in Pride parade

The Chicago Cubs also sponsored a float in the parade, a first in their club history. Since the Cubs had an afternoon game, Cubs alumni and Hall of Fame member Ernie Banks rode on the Cubs' float. Mr. Banks knows something about breaking down barriers, as when he joined the Cubs in 1953, he was their first black player - and he was also the first player to have his number retired by the Cubs organization.

Brent Sopel is a man's man among hockey players, known for being a tough player. As a defenseman, he lays his body on the line nightly, and has racked up injuries to prove it. His face still currently bears the healing scar from a puck taken to the face late in the season. But his grit as a player is balanced out by a heart of gold. He and his family have welcomed military families into their home for the holidays through "Operation Homefront".

Fans have responded warmly to him, and he's found a solid fanbase. Unfortunately, he's been traded to the Thrashers, but he's stated that he loves Chicago, his family will remain here, that he hopes to become a Blackhawk again in the future, and that when the day comes, he'll retire here.

In the meantime, before he has to head off to Atlanta, he's embracing summer in Chicago, and still doing what he can to share the Cup with Blackhawks fans across the city. In addition to riding in the Pride parade, he then brought the Stanley Cup over to Casey Moran's in Wrigleyville for the afternoon, allowing a lot of happy fans to touch and take pictures with the Cup.

Sopel had a big smile on his face, too, not just as he carried the Cup in, but as he met a steady stream of a couple hundred fans, posing for pictures and signing items.

Stanley Cup at Casey Moran's 6/27/2010

Within fifteen minutes of arrival, Casey Moran's was packed. This picture was before more arrived!

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