Sask. athlete finds success in new sport after crash derails hockey career

Ice hockey players must be able to quickly change direction on the ice. Kyrell Sopotyk had to do it in real life.

Sopotyk’s promising ice hockey career was dashed when he was just 19 years old when he fell while snowboarding.

Now the athlete from Saskatchewan has a new sport. At the last summer games in Canada, he competed in wheelchair races for the province and won a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters.

Sopotyk was first put on a pair of ice skates when he was three years old, at the ice rink in his hometown of Aberdeen, Sask. A year later he had his first ice hockey practice.

Kyrell Sopotyk had 27 points in 43 games in his last full season with the Kamloops Blazers. (Kamloop’s blazer)

As a teenager, he was drafted into the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League by the Prince Albert Mintos. From there he joined the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League as a forward. He lived his dream.

Then, on January 22, 2021, everything changed abruptly.

The snowboarding accident fractured his T5 and T6 vertebrae and left Sopotyk paralyzed from the chest down. His ice hockey career was over.

“Obviously that was a heartbreaking moment,” Sopotyk said in an interview Saskatoon morning Hostess Leisha Grebinski.

“I just kept a positive attitude the whole time because I knew I couldn’t change it.”

Sopotyk said his thoughts turned to a future that would still involve the sport.

While he was still recovering in the hospital, his recreational therapist reached out to para-track and field coach Jen Wood.

Wood said it was unusual for an athlete to reach out so quickly after an injury. Most people take a break.

“He really wanted to jump back in,” said Wood. “It was great for him to be able to do that. It was a big step.”

Sopotyk and his mother, Lori, met Wood and another trainer at the Field House in Saskatoon for an October 2021 trial.

Getting into the racing wheelchair was a bit of a challenge for Kyrell. It wasn’t with him.

“They explained to him how it works and they kind of ran alongside him across the track,” Lori said. “They came by a second time and there were no coaches with him. It was just Ky walking around the track.

“It was pretty amazing to see how quickly he had just figured that out.”

Coach Jen Wood describes the first time Sopotyk used a racing wheelchair as “mind-blowing.” Just seven months later, they traveled together to the Canada Summer Games in Niagara. (Submitted by Jen Wood)

Kyrell began training with the para-athletic team. Just like in hockey, he gave everything he had.

“He’s a really hard worker. Athletics is not a team sport where you have teammates around you. It’s very individual with your focus and training,” Wood said.

“He always wants to learn more. He asks many questions. He does his own research. He can really be corrected.”

His drive and curiosity paid off. This August, just 20 months after retiring from hockey, he donned a jersey for Team Saskatchewan at the Canada Summer Games.

Sopotyk took part in three events. He finished fourth in the men’s 400-meter wheelchair and eighth in the 100-meter dash.

His courage and determination earned him third place in a tough 1500m final.

Sopotyk says while he’s still in touch with his hockey teammates, he’s found another caring sports family in the para-athlete community. (Submitted by Kyrell Sopotyk)

“I wasn’t expecting the guys to go out that hard, but I just wanted to keep up with the pack,” Kyrell said of the race.

He was in fourth place but made a move in the last 100 meters to take the bronze medal.

“My arms are on fire at the end, but it was a good feeling to cross the finish line at the end and know that I’m going to get on the podium.”

His trainer, Wood, admitted to shouting a lot during the race.

“Watching him round the last 100m and turn on the jets was really special,” said Wood. “It was amazing to see how he believes in himself. He’s an incredible athlete who has come a really, really long way in a short amount of time.”

Sopotyk says he will focus on para-athletics and wheelchair basketball in the near future. He is not sure if he will play sled hockey. His injury limits his core function, making it difficult to keep his balance. (Submitted by Kyrell Sopotyk)

The award ceremony was significant for the whole Sopotyk family.

“It was very emotional. They were tears of joy,” Lori said. “It’s amazing to see 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 always wants to do better.”

Moving into para athletics was only half of Kyrell’s incredible transition. This August he will travel to Thailand with Team Canada for the U23 World Wheelchair Basketball Championships.

While the end of Kyrell’s hockey career was unexpected, his ability to turn around was not.

“You can talk about people being role models and being an inspiration, but I think it’s just Kyrell. He’s a lifelong athlete and he loves to compete,” said Wood. “I think he just hugs every day and just lives his best life.”

Listen to Kyrell’s conversation with Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski:

Saskatoon morning10:12The Canadian Summer Games were a success for two Saskatchewan athletes

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