TAMPA, Fla. -- When Robbie Hall signed a new contract with ECHL's Atlanta Gladiators in 2020, he felt like he was living the dream. The money wasn't great -- about $500 per week, before taxes -- but it was double the $250 a week he was making in the SPHL.
"I was in my third year playing professional hockey for a living," said Hall, a defenseman who played four years of Division III hockey at SUNY Brockport. "Which is three more years than I ever thought I would [play]. I followed my dream and got to do exactly what I wanted to do."
Then COVID hit. The Gladiators opted out of the 2020-21 season, citing economic viability.
"That basically forced my hand at retirement," Hall said.
He was 28.
"While I wouldn't trade that experience for the world, I definitely feel like I'm behind the eight ball in life because of hockey," Hall said. "We invest all of our time in hockey and training and being the best athlete we can be, but we missed out on entry-level jobs and job promotions. A lot of my peers, they may have a house and a family right now, their whole lives situated. I'm still trying to find my way."
Hall grew up in the Chicago area and typically spent summers working construction. He knew that wasn't for him. "But I didn't know what I wanted to do, either," he said. "Hockey is really all I had known, my whole life."
Hall studied criminal justice in college, so he began applying to police departments in and around Chicago.
Eventually he took a job working at a golf store, just to buy time. One day, he got a call from Brent Sopel, the retired 12-year NHL veteran. Hall and Sopel had met while working out at the same Chicago-area gym.
"I have an opportunity for you," Sopel said. "Come work with me."
It was just the lifeline Hall needed.
Sopel is most famous for winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. A decade later, he moved from Chicago to Tampa to work for a solar energy company. Even he can't believe the latest twist in his career.
"I'm a Saskatchewan farmer that doesn't like humidity or water," said Sopel, now 44. "Florida is the last place on Earth I thought I would live."
After retiring as an NHL defenseman in 2011, Sopel himself struggled to find his way. He came to grips with his previously undiagnosed dyslexia, as well as his drug and alcohol abuse. In 2016, Sopel went to rehab. He's been sober ever since.
Sopel became passionate about helping others and created a foundation for people with dyslexia. He's mentored dozens of people -- in hockey and beyond -- and has helped send dozens more through rehab. Finding salaried work wasn't as easy.
"Only a small percentage of hockey players have enough money where they don't have to work," Sopel said. "But even then, you need a purpose every day when you get up. And a majority of us don't -- we don't have work experience, we don't have an education. And nobody in this world, especially in business, cares if we played hockey. The only thing that matters is, are we making them money, yes or no?"
After leaving rehab, Sopel worked part-time for a coconut water company. He then got into roofing. Through roofing, Sopel learned more and more about solar energy.
"As part of the last stimulus package, there was a federal 26% discount for solar," Sopel said. "So you see the way the government is going."
Through one of his mentees, Sopel got connected to Brock Sottile, a former junior hockey player himself and founder and CEO of Horizon Energy Consultants. Sopel accepted a job to oversee the company's Florida operations, then pitched an idea: What if he focused all of his recruitment on ex-hockey players?
His boss loved the idea.
"The one thing you miss most from the game is the camaraderie from being around other guys who were like-minded and competitive, and our business is very similar to hockey: You're only as strong as your weakest player or weakest performing team," Sottile said. "So we can constantly push each other to compete and get better. It also made perfect sense, because there's a lot of minor leagues in Florida and a lot of guys who played in them that are currently struggling and really could use this source of income we could provide."
Horizon operates in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California and is looking to expand. There are 82 full-time employees at the company. Sopel has brought in about 10 (though Hall is the only one who lives in his home). Sopel reached out to the Professional Hockey Players Association -- which represents the interests of players in the AHL and ECHL -- and asked to speak to union reps. Hall introduced him to some former teammates in similar situations.
Sopel worked the phones, looking for any ex-players who felt stuck. This month, two-time Stanley Cup winner Brad Lukowich is going to join the company, with the goal of eventually overseeing its Texas operations.
"I've had many conversations with guys in life after hockey that are lost," Sopel said. "I wanted to start a family business and give back in ways that nobody has, or cares to."
Hall moved across the country, away from his family and girlfriend in Illinois, to start a new career in a field he was unfamiliar with. It was a bit intimidating.
"Being a hockey player was my only identity, and it was hard for me to transition out of that. I needed help," Hall said. "The only people that really understand it are other hockey players. It's comforting to know that Brent knows exactly what I'm going through, what I've been through."
Hall shadowed Sopel in a few meetings, including a sales pitch to agents at Coldwell Banker. He then watched YouTube videos on door-to-door sales pitches. He learned to recite the company's sales pitch. He believed he was on his way.
"The first few days I was nervous walking up to people's doors," Hall said. "If they didn't answer, I was like, 'OK, that's not so bad.' If they did answer, how were they going to react? Maybe they're having a bad day and will take it out on you."
He finds himself utilizing an athlete's mentality.
"I approach every door like the next golf shot. Forget about the last shot, you can only focus on the next one," he said.
Sottile has no problem hiring people with little traditional experience.
"I think a lot of things these days can be self-taught," he said. "And for someone who doesn't have a college education, I find Brent to be one of the most empathetic and intelligent people mentally that I've ever interacted with."
It's that relative experience Sottile has found to be just as important.
"If you have a hockey background, you're interacting with people from a young age, and you learn how to represent yourself. Your image is displayed at all times and is something you have to protect -- but also expand and grow," Sottile said. "You also have the work ethic and resilience to excel in a lot of different industries, not just my company or in energy. If there's anything to take away for an ex-hockey player reading this, it's this: You don't have to feel like you have to create a new identity with your hockey player mentality."
Sopel isn't sure how long Hall will live with him -- nor how long he'll work with him. He just wanted to help open a new door and see where it would lead.
How Brent Sopel is opening doors for fellow former hockey players