Hearing the words “blind hockey” may cause some to scratch their heads, but it’s actually not too different than hockey for the sighted.
“Although many are surprised to hear blind and ice hockey in the same sentence, blind hockey has been played in Canada for nearly 40 years,” Bruce Porter, the program director for Blinded Veterans Association, told CBS Radio’s Connecting Vets in a recent interview.
The program came to the D.C. area about two years ago when Craig Fitzpatrick, dubbed the “Godfather of Blind Hockey,” played at the second annual Blind Hockey Summit in New York and was challenged to start a team at home — named the Washington Wheelers.
“I contacted the Caps… they gave us some ice, we did the ‘Try It’ session in February of last year, we had about 75 low vision people come out for that one and then we started the program after that,” Fitzpatrick said. “And now we just keep growing and playing.”
Anywhere between 12-15 visually impaired players attend their weekly “Try It” sessions, held every Sunday morning at the Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia — the same ice rink where the Washington Capitals practice.
There are three key differences in playing blind hockey:
- Players use a larger, slower moving puck made of steel with loud ball bearings inside
- Goals must be scored in the bottom 3 feet of the net (as it is unfair to the goalie to score in the top portion blind)
- Players must complete a pass once they cross the blue line – then a whistle is blown to alert the goalie that the play is in his defensive zone.
In tournament play, all athletes must be at least legally blind with the lowest vision athletes playing defense or goalie. Athletes are grouped by sight level and can have only a set amount of sight among all of the players on the ice at the same time.
Another member of the Wheelers, Lawrence Harrison, served in the U.S. Navy for four years — stationed overseas on the USS La Salle flagship for the Middle East. He was later diagnosed with glaucoma, causing him to lose vision completely in his right eye and have tunnel vision in his left eye. He also lost hearing in both of his ears, and is now assisted with the use of hearing aids.
Porter, who is also the national coach of BVA’s Blind Hockey Program, says a vital part of coaching the players is learning to work with their impairments.
“You have to work with those adaptations as you’re teaching them how to work with the puck,” Porter says. “Learning those visual impairment differences is very important.”
Because hockey is considered the fastest, most aggressive game in the sports world, those who take up the sport usually develop increased mobility and balance almost immediately, Porter says.
Harrison says the Department of Veterans Affairs recommended he try Blind Hockey, even though he had never so much as rollerskated. He’s been playing for about four months now, and encourages any blind veteran to come out and simply give it a try.
“Never fear! You can do it,” Harrison says. “There’s a lot of things that the blind think they cannot do but they can do. You just gotta put your mind to it and want to to do it. Put your heart into it… and don’t be afraid.”
In fact, Porter says every veteran that participates in their program are beginners.
“Come out to our ‘Learn to Skate.’ There’s no pressure,” Porter says. “We’ll give you your skates. I’ll make sure I have someone there to help you out. We’ll bring all of the equipment for you and you’ll be safe. Start that way. We’re with you the whole way.”
The program was made possible through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Adaptive Sports Grant Program. From there, the D.C. Blind Hockey program became partners with USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating. The Washington Capitals and Arlington County also donate ice time to the team at Kettler every week.
Porter says the program would not be possible without the volunteers.
“Most of them are veterans that come out and help the program,” Porter says.” 6 a.m. practices, 7 a.m. practices – they’re here. These people just have huge hearts. It wouldn’t be happening without them.”
There are five official teams throughout the country, and Porter says the hope is that come October, they will be able to start fielding teams for tournaments.
“It’s really the most exciting sport that the blind can play,” he says. “Nothing beats the exhilaration of scoring a goal, passing and winning.”