Outta This World

Space Shuttle Astronaut’s Passion For The Game Is Over The Moon
Brian Lester

The fact that Michael Hopkins didn’t grow up a hockey player should not come as a big surprise. The rural Missouri town he called home might as well have been a million miles away from the nearest rink.
Football was the sport of choice in the small town of Richland, and he thrived at it, earning a scholarship to play defensive back at the University of Illinois.

But the path he took in his post-collegiate career ­— joining the Air Force, becoming a test pilot engineer and ultimately serving as a Space Shuttle astronaut — would eventually lead him to the game he never dreamed of playing and now can’t imagine giving up.

“I was in my early 30s and stationed in Cold Lake, Alberta as part of an officer exchange program and I started playing hockey because they had adult leagues there,” said Hopkins, an Air Force colonel who now lives in Houston. “I absolutely loved it.”

Of course, it took time to develop the skills necessary to be a decent player on the ice.

“I had a lot of trouble staying up and ran into the [boards] a lot. It took a lot of falling before I got the hang of it,” he admitted. “I worked out a lot on my own and eventually worked my way up to the higher-level adult league.”

His interest never faded, especially when his sons started playing a decade ago at the ages of 4 and 6. He became a registered hockey coach in Houston and has been involved with his sons’ hockey teams at the various levels ever since.

“I spent a lot of time on the ice with them and have been on the bench as a coach for their youth teams,” Hopkins said. “But I found as they have gotten older, they have gotten beyond my skill set. I can’t teach them about the game the way I could when they were younger.”

The demands of his career with NASA also made it difficult to stay involved. Hopkins spent two years training for a six-month mission to the International Space Station, where he served as a flight engineer, conducting experiments and performing maintenance on the station.

Michael Hopkins, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, was able to keep up with his sons' hockey seasons during his six-month mission to the International Space Station.Michael Hopkins, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, was able to keep up with his sons' hockey seasons during his six-month mission to the International Space Station.

He also participated in a NASA-sponsored educational program called “Story Time From Space,” which films astronauts reading to classrooms back home.

The mission, which ended in March 2014, involved him and a crew of Russian cosmonauts traveling more than 70 million miles and completing 2,656 orbits around the Earth.

His time in space fell at the same time as hockey season, but thanks to technology, Hopkins was able to video conference with his family. Some of those conferences took place during his sons’ hockey games.

“My wife would be at the rink with the iPad and would talk to me while having the camera face the ice,” he recalled. “It was neat being able to watch them play while I was in space. I even had a chance to talk to the team once before a game. My wife got some strange looks from people who would notice me floating around on the camera, but it was all worth it.”

While his job presents a unique set of challenges that make it difficult to juggle life with career, Hopkins points out he’s no different than anyone else.

“As an astronaut, it’s certainly challenging because you do spend a lot of time away from home, but a lot of people have challenges to deal with when they are trying to balance their home lives with their work lives,” Hopkins said.

“I give a lot of credit to the youth hockey coaches out there who are so dedicated to teaching players. Those guys do a great job.”

While coaching hockey became a challenge, in part because of his job and also because of the advanced level his sons now play at, Hopkins found a way to still help out the teams.

“I do a lot with the conditioning aspect of hockey, and my football background has really helped me with that,” said the gym rat who has posted videos of his workout routines on NASA’s website. “I enjoy doing it and I have learned to adjust the conditioning routine to match the level the players are at.”

The job fits Hopkins well, not only because he understands the importance of being in great shape to play a sport, but because he knows what it takes to push yourself to the next level.

“The one thing I can talk to the players about is that I played Div. I football and I know what it takes to get to that level,” Hopkins said. “I’ve found that as players get older, the more passionate they become about the sport they are playing, and that helps drive them to succeed.”

Hockey is a family affair for Col. Michael Hopkins, his wife, Julie, and sons Ryan, left, and Lucas in the Houston area.Hockey is a family affair for Col. Michael Hopkins, his wife, Julie, and sons Ryan, left, and Lucas in the Houston area.

Hopkins’ sons are in high school, Ryan is a junior and Lucas is a freshman, and he knows his days of watching them compete are nearing an end. So for now, he savors the moments.

“We have become a hockey family and I’m not looking forward to that coming to an end,” Hopkins said. “We take a lot of trips to Dallas for games and we enjoy our time on the road as a family. I can’t imagine not having hockey as part of our lives.”

Hopkins isn’t sure if he’ll stay involved in the game once his sons are done. Playing in a local adult league is an option, but he could buy a few more years of being a hockey dad if his sons play in college.

“I’m in denial right now that it won’t last forever watching my sons play, but they both seem to have the desire to play in college. The great thing about that is there are lot of options for that,” he said. “We’re looking forward to that. After it’s over, maybe I’ll play again. We’ll see what happens.”

What will happen for sure is that Hopkins has a passion for the game, something that didn’t seem likely all those years ago when he was a child in Missouri.

“There was a time when I didn’t understand the game. Now, by far my favorite event to watch is the NHL playoffs,” Hopkins said. “The intensity level is amazing. I’m impressed with it every time I watch.”

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, Fla.


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