Kyrell Sopotyk is 1,200 kilometres away.
He’s never been so close to hearts in Kamloops.
“I know I’ll be watching and cheering them on proudly from here,” said Sopotyk of his Kamloops Blazers.
“That’s as much as I can do.”
Sopotyk spoke to KTW on Friday (March 26) from Saskatoon City Hospital.
He should be entering his 19-year-old season and bursting out of the tunnel on Friday with his Blazer teammates, who will play host to the Vancouver Giants to start this most unusual of WHL seasons, a 7 p.m. start at Sandman Centre.
A devastating snowboarding accident on Jan. 22 near North Battleford, Sask., changed the course of his life. Doctors told Sopotyk his T5 vertebrae is fractured and he will never walk again.
“Hearing that, it breaks your heart,” said Sopotyk, whose stall, complete with name plate, remains untouched in the Blazers’ dressing room. “My plan was to come back to Kamloops and play hockey. I’m not going to lie. I was in tears hearing that.”
Kyrell’s mom, Lori Sopotyk, added: “That was the first thing out of his mouth, his hockey, that he would never skate again. And he felt like he had let everyone down.”
Ask his teammates. He’s not a former Blazer. He’s a Kamloops Blazer.
Sopotyk should be there on Friday on Mark Recchi Way, embracing opening night and striking a blow against the pandemic with the rest of his club.
“You create great relationships with the guys and the city, so it feels like a part of your life is missing now, right?” said Sopotyk, the Aberdeen, Sask., product who had 27 points in 43 games last season. “It brought me joy throughout my life. It’s all I wanted to do. Moving forward, I know I can’t change the past. I’m OK with it. I know, through talking to people, there is lots of opportunity outside of the hospital in sports. I’m looking forward to trying that stuff and, hopefully, pursuing something in that field.”
The snowboarding wipeout seemed innocent enough.
“I was just cruising down and it was a complete freak accident, just a weird fall,” Sopotyk said. “I must have scorpioned or something and fell awkwardly on the board or hit something on my back. Just a super-freak accident and pretty unlucky, but you can’t change it now.”
He was briefly unconscious and came to knowing something was terribly wrong, unable to move his legs or feel anything throughout his lower body.
A few hours later, he was told his hockey dreams will never be realized.
Now nearly two months into his hospital stay, focus has shifted to the therapy that will enable Sopotyk to craft a new purpose.
Occupational therapy, physical therapy and recreational therapy take place Mondays to Fridays. Time is spent in the gym working out, cooking, learning movements and wheelchair skills and playing sports.
“I’m kind of stubborn,” Sopotyk said with a laugh. “I want to be able to figure out stuff on my own. Getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, having showers, I’m independent with all that. The athletic background probably helped a little bit with the strength training. I’m able to have good upper-body strength to move myself around.”
He was asked about hopes for walking again.
“Science and research is a crazy thing, so maybe one day there will be, but right now it’s just learn how to manage life in the chair,” Sopotyk said.
Down days are inevitable, but support is unceasing — from family, friends, teammates, Blazer Nation and the entire hockey world, including the people who pitched in to raise nearly $200,000 through a GoFundMe account.
“It’s been crazy,” said Sopotyk, who may be released from hospital on April 1. “I’m overwhelmed, honestly, just knowing everyone is behind me. Everyone wants to hear about my journey and how I’m doing.
“The support and just talking to people has really helped me through this and to be able to move on and stay positive.”
The GoFundMe account was started by family friend Kathleen Zary, whose son, Connor, Kyrell’s best pal, was this week named captain of the Blazers.
“He’s in my thoughts all the time,” Connor said. “Everyone is thinking about him. You always know when he’s out there. He brings a lot of energy and he’s always having fun. He puts a smile on your face every day. That’s a guy we miss having out on the ice, but especially in the dressing room. It’s tough not having him here, but he’s always in our thoughts.”
He should be here.
Some day, he’ll be back.
Kamloops will be ready with open arms.
“I wish I could be in Kamloops watching in person, but this will have to do for now,” Sopotyk said.
“I’ll be in a wheelchair moving forward, a paraplegic, but that’s not stopping me from anything.”