Hockey players need to be able to quickly change direction on the ice. Kyrell Sopotyk had to do it in real life.
Sopotyk’s promising hockey career was cut short by a snowboarding accident when he was just 19 years old.
Now the Saskatchewan athlete has a new sport. He competed in wheelchair races for the province at the recent Canada Summer Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1,500 metres.
Sopotyk first put on a pair of skates at the age of three at the rink in his hometown of Aberdeen, Saskatchewan. He had his first hockey practice a year later.
As a teenager, he was selected by the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League. From there he moved to the Western Hockey League as a forward with the Kamloops Blazers. He was living his dream.
Then on January 22, 2021, everything changed in an instant.
The snowboarding accident fractured his T5 and T6 vertebrae, crippling Sopotyk from the chest down. His hockey career was over.
“It was obviously a heartbreaking moment,” Sopotyk said in an interview with Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski.
“I just kept a positive mindset the whole time, knowing I couldn’t change it.”
Sopotyk said he had turned his thoughts to a future that would always include sports.
While still recovering in hospital, he asked his recreation therapist to contact para-athletics coach Jen Wood.
Wood said an athlete reaching out so quickly after an injury was unusual. Most people take time off.
“He was eager to go back,” Wood said. “It was important for him to be able to do that. It was a big step forward.”
Sopotyk and his mother, Lori, met Wood and another coach at the Field House in Saskatoon for a trial in October 2021.
Getting into the racing wheelchair was a bit difficult for Kyrell. Using it was not.
“They explained how it worked and they kind of ran alongside him around the track,” Lori said. “They came a second time and there were no coaches with him. It was just Ky going around the track.
“It was pretty amazing how quickly he had just figured that out.”
Kyrell began training with the para-athletic team. Like in hockey, he put everything he had into it.
“He’s a hard worker. Track and field isn’t like a team sport, where you have teammates around. It’s very individual with your focus and your training,” Wood said.
“He always wants to know more. He will ask a lot of questions. He will do the research himself. He really takes corrections.”
His dynamism and curiosity paid off. Last August, barely 20 months after the end of his hockey career, he donned a Team Saskatchewan jersey at the Canada Summer Games.
Sopotyk competed in three events. He placed fourth in the men’s wheelchair 400 meters and eighth in the 100 meters.
His courage and determination earned him third place in a tough 1500m final.
“I didn’t expect the guys to come out that strong, but I mean, I just wanted to stick with the pack,” Kyrell said of the race.
He was in fourth place, but made a move in the final 100 meters to get the bronze medal.
“My arms are burning at the end, but it was a good feeling to cross the finish line at the end, knowing that I would be on the podium.
His trainer Wood admitted to shouting a lot during the race.
“Just seeing him go through the final 100-yard mark and fire up the jets was pretty special,” Wood said. “It was amazing to watch him believe in himself. He’s an incredible athlete who has come a very, very long way in a short time.”
The medal ceremony was significant for the entire Sopotyk family.
“It was very emotional. It was tears of joy,” Lori said. “It’s amazing how he was able to go from such a tragic event to this one.
“That’s the kind of person Kyrell is. He just does his best and he always wants to do better.”
The move to Para athletics was only half of Kyrell’s incredible transition. In August, he will travel to Thailand with Team Canada for the World Under-23 Wheelchair Basketball Championships.
While the end of Kyrell’s hockey career was unexpected, his ability to pivot was not.
“You can talk about people leading by example and inspiring, but I think that’s just Kyrell. He’s been a lifelong athlete and loves competition,” Wood said. “I think he’s embracing every day and living his best life.”
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