Brent Sopel was saluted every inch of the Chicago Gay Pride Parade route June 27 as he rode for about two hours on the Chicago Gay Hockey Association ( CGHA ) float through Lakeviewalong with the Stanley Cup.
Onlookers cheered, snapped thousands of photos, waved Chicago Blackhawks' banners, yelled, screamed and even threw him a few beerswhich he drank.
"It was awesome, amazing; I had a great time, way better than I expected," Sopel said in an exclusive post-parade interview. "It was more [ fun ] than I expected; it was a blast. Everyone was fun, everyone was dancing. But, at the end of the day, I hope it raised some awareness."
Sopel hoped it raised awareness specifically for Brendan Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke. The younger Burke, who was a manager for the Miami ( Ohio ) University hockey team, revealed he was gay last November and was killed in a car crash this past February in Indiana.
Burke wore a green shamrock with the initials BB inscribed on it on his red Blackhawks uniform in the parade. Members of the CGHA also had BB printed on special white parade T-shirts and red jerseys.
"I wasn't here to advocate [ anything ] , but if coming here helps break down walls in the meantime, so be it. I was here for Brendan," said Sopel, who rode on the float with his wife. "I hope he is smiling [ from heaven ] ."Read more story below....
Sopelwho was recently traded to the Atlanta Thrashersadmitted that he "absolutely" volunteered to represent the Blackhawks in the parade after the CGHA sent a letter to invite the team to join them.
Sopel met the late Burke several times. "He was a very unique individual," Sopel said. "For him to come out, and then die a few months later …when you're a parent and you have to bury a kid, it's just heartbreaking."
So, when will there be an openly gay athlete in one of the four major sports?
"I don't know. I'm sure someday there will be, but when that time is, I'm not sure," Sopel said.
"Someone asked me today if it ever gets old holding up The Cup. Never. If I can get my hands on the Cup when I'm 80 [ years old ] , and can still lift it, I'm sure I'll get the same reaction."
Players from the CGHA were all smiles before, during and after the parade, even as Sopel and the Cup were loaded in a limousine at the end of the route.
"It worked out perfectly, better than we expected. The weather. The crowd. Sopel. The Cup. Everything was in place. It was great," said CGHA president Andrew Sobotka. "We put a lot of work into this, so I knew it would go well. And it did."
Sobotka said "the crowd" was the highlight. "Everyone was cheering; everyone loved Sopel; everyone loved The Cup. It was great."
Sobotka, about 30 minutes after The Cup and Sopel departed, summed it up: "It's still surreal."