A Clear Vision

Blind Hockey Focuses On The Future And A Place In The Paralympics

It's fine to have questions about blind hockey.

That's a small but growing version of the sport that still raises lots of questions, from the general - How exactly does that work? - to the very specific - How do the players celebrate scoring goals? 

And then there's this one: Did you see that glove save Doug Goist made in the blind hockey's first international series?

We'll come back to that flash of leather in a little bit. It happened during the USA Hockey Blind Hockey Summit at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa. The fifth-annual event this past October celebrated all aspects of this parasport that is blind hockey, which was invented in Canada in the 1970s but is just catching on in places across the United States.

The centerpiece of this year's summit was a first series of three games between the Canadian National Blind Hockey Team and the first U.S. Blind Hockey Team, which was just chosen after tryouts at the annual USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in Chicago. 

This was the first blind Team Canada, too, because previously, those players hadn't had another country to play. 

The Americans were big underdogs and not surprised when the Canadians handily won the first two games to claim the gold medals, which were handed out by USA Hockey President Jim Smith and USA Hockey's disabled section chairperson, J.J. O'Connor. The Canadians won the third game, too, if less handily.

To a man, and to a woman - there are three on the 18-member U.S. team - just competing was a huge win. 

"We were pleased," said defenseman Kevin Shanley later of his team, which "stretches from Maine to San Diego." Not only are the Canadian organization and its players much more experienced - "40 percent of our team wasn't playing blind hockey in January, including our captain" -  but also the Canadians are younger. "That's our biggest issue now. We need to get younger."

But Shanley knows how far and how fast the sport has come since he was the first American to play it in 2013 - at a Canadian blind hockey tournament to which he accepted an invitation. 

"That was an incredibly stupid move on my part," says the legally blind man who at the time was just playing pickup with sighted players. He'd told them, "I can't receive a pass, I probably can't hit the net if I shoot, but I just want to get out and play. They were cool with it."

He went on to partner with Canadian Blind Hockey and USA Hockey to hold the first Blind Hockey Summit in Newburgh, N.Y., in 2014, and now in addition to playing on Team USA, he's the blind hockey representative for USA Hockey's Disabled Section. 

Blind hockey is the newest and one of the fasted growing disabled disciplines, which includes amputee hockey, deaf hockey, special hockey, sled hockey and warrior hockey. Shanley and many other pioneering volunteers are opening up the game to people of all abilities. 

"We all spend a lot more time building the sport than we do our day jobs," says Shanley, who works as an engineering professor. There now are nine established U.S. teams, including his New York Nightshade, which is expanding to Utica, N.Y., and the robust and wonderfully named Hartford Braillers. In all, says Shanley, there are more than 100 players and that number is growing, too.

How does blind hockey work?

It's like regular ice hockey, with a few adaptations. The most noticeable is that it's played with a larger, slower, hollow metal puck with ball bearings in it that players can track by sound. 

Players all are legally blind and are rated per International Blind Sports Federation classification as B1 (no vision, one point), B2 (approximately 5 percent functional vision or less, two points) or a B3 (10 percent or less, three points), with those with the least vision tending to play defense. To keep things fair, each team is allowed no more than 14 of these vision "points" on the ice at any given time.

The goalies are B1 and blindfolded for good measure and protect nets that are a foot shorter than those used in the NHL. That means they mostly play on their knees. 

The goalies and the defense get a little more help in tracking the puck in that teams must complete one pass in the attacking zone, and that pass is signaled by a referee's high-pitched whistle, before they may score. 

And there's no body checking. At least, not on purpose. But otherwise, the sport is played like able-bodied hockey. 

Watch high-level play, such as during the international series, and you might not believe the skaters are legally blind. You might question why one pulls up on a breakaway. But that's because he or she must make that one pass before taking a shot. 

Before the first game of this fall's inaugural U.S.-Canada series, skaters held their goalies' sticks to guide them to their creases, and the cacophony began as the metal pucks clanged off the goalies, the pipes and the boards. 

Experienced fans are not shy about cheering extra loudly and pounding positively on the glass. 

Yes, the play is physical and can get chippy. But you also see players, after an accidental collision, fist bump each other. And then they're right back at battle. 

Scorers can celly with the best of them, as you could see after Tim Kane scored USA's first goal on a sweet backhand. 

Sighted spectators' questions turned into exclamations. As one Pittsburgh paramedic put it, "It really is amazing!" 

Fans on both sides cheered, near the end of Game 1, when Team USA's No. 1-wearing goalie Doug Goist snagged a shot with his outstretched catching glove. He certainly didn't see it and airborne pucks are the hardest to hear. The goalie was thrilled to make the snag, as were his teammates. 

"I told 'em," Goist quipped after the 8-2 loss, "I wish I had eight more."

Goist, who is 50, plays for the Washington Wheelers in Washington, D.C., where he works helping other blind people get good jobs. He lost his sight to a genetic degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa that was diagnosed just as he started college.

He'd played a lot of sports, but never ice hockey, until he crossed paths with Wheelers co-founder Craig Fitzpatrick, who invited him to skate and then roped the big guy into being the team's netminder. They both are on the Team USA roster. 

Fitzpatrick, who's 42, greatly admires his friend and road trip roommate. But having played in the series, he also admires his fellow USA teammates, who range in age from teens to 60 and who work at a wide range of jobs.

"These people are kicking the crap out of their blindness," Fitzpatrick says. "Being visually impaired sucks, and a lot of people let it get them down. But not the people in the ... locker room. We have used hockey as a platform to improve our lives and inspire other blind people to do the same."

He and Shanley don't agree on everything, but they do agree the key now is to grow the sport. ("And BEAT CANADA," Fitzpatrick says.)

A Washington, D.C., youth summit in the works for February "that's really geared at the future," says Shanley, who wants to get more kids who are blind out skating and playing in games. "We need to have more people who are growing up in the sport."

Sometime this spring, there will be a U.S.-Canada rematch in Canada as proponents on both side of the border work to inspire the formation of at least two other teams in other countries, such as Finland and England. Then there could be a world championship in 2020. The end goal is to have blind hockey be part of the Paralympic Games in 2026. Coach Michael Svac says the U.S. Blind Hockey Team will be ready to bring home the gold then. 

Shanley points out that high-level sport is important incentive to young players, scores of which also got to play at the Pittsburgh summit. One was 10-year-old Yaakov Nemtzov, who has optic nerve hypoplasia and other eye issues and who came from Long Beach, N.Y., where he's gaining confidence playing with New York Metro Blind Hockey. As he headed out to play with other players in the Blue division, his mother, Diana Kron, called through the glass, "I'm cheering you on!" 

So are blind hockey leaders such as Shanley, who can't wait for the new kids to come up. 

The international series was a big step. "We wanted to break the sport," he says, "and it'll never be the same again." 



Bob Batz Jr. is a Pittsburgh journalist, an assistant coach on his son's 12U team and a big admirer of all special hockey players.




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