Charging Ahead

Programs Like The Pittsburgh Rhinos Help Push Blind Hockey Forward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brock Kitterman was only 12 weeks of age when he was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, eye cancer in both eyes. The chemotherapy he received to treat the cancer would eventually damage his hearing, which resulted in deafblindness.  

Even at 6 years old, he was determined to live an active life and started playing on a special hockey team in the Pittsburgh area. His career only lasted about a year as he needed to find a sport better suited for his condition. That’s when he discovered blind hockey.

In 2016, blind hockey was introduced to the Steel City and Brock was one of the original players to participate. Since then, he has competed in three blind hockey summits and three Disabled Hockey Festivals, most recently at the 2022 Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival close to home. 

“We are one big family,” Kitterman said. “With blind ice hockey, we look at it as one large team nationwide, because no one team has enough players of the same level. So when we all come together, we are one team and we divide into red, white and blue levels and then we divide those levels into two teams, black and yellow.”

Blind hockey teams generally wear yellow and black uniforms because those are both solid, distinct colors that vision-impaired players are able to differentiate from each other, making it easier to identify teammates and opponents. 

Brock competed in the advanced blind hockey division on Team Black. He is one of three deafblind players in the Pittsburgh blind hockey community. If a player is deafblind, he or she wears a stripe on the players helmet to signal, not necessarily their teammates, but coaches and officials that the player may need nonverbal cues. 

Other adaptations to the game make it possible for players to compete, including custom three-foot nets, blind hockey features an adapted puck that is larger than a traditional puck and contains ball-bearings to make noise so players can track the puck. Players’ levels of vision range from legally blind – approximately 10 percent vision or less – to totally blind. 

Blind hockey is one of the fastest growing disciplines of disabled hockey. There are currently 20 blind hockey teams throughout the country. Brock’s team, the Pittsburgh Rhinos, welcomes players of all ability and has seen players as young as eight years old to players as old as 67.

As hs experiences have expanded so too has his passion for the game. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a family affair as his mother, Tammy, has made the Pittsburgh Rhinos Ice Hockey Club her full time job, spearheading everything from raising grant money to organizing practices. 

In April of 2019, Tammy was awarded Hockey Mom of the Year from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization for all of her contributions and her passion for the sport.

Much of her time and effort is spent trying to find affordable ice time at rinks that are close enough for players, but that’s not always the case for other blind hockey programs around the country. Some programs get their ice time donated to them, but then have to worry about other logistics and expenses such as pucks or transportation for players to and from the rink. 

Still, she is thankful for the support that the team has received from the local community.

“We participated in an on-ice scrimmage at a Wheeling Nailers [ECHL] game and part of the verbiage they used was that the puck we are playing with is $55 per puck. By the time I got home, I had several donations that said ‘puck’ cause we said that is such an expense for our team. It was just really amazing to see,” Tammy said.

As Tammy pointed out, once people are exposed to the sport, they tend to fall in love with the game, just as she and her son have since blind hockey first came into their lives. They hope to continue to be a part of the continued growth as more people with disabilities discover that there is a place for them in the game. 

“I witnessed the sweetest interaction go down yesterday,” Tammy recalled after the Festival drew to a close. “Where Brock scored and the goalie happened to be his hometown teammate, but he’s on the opposite team for the Festival. The second he scored he went right up to the goalie to console his friend and then turned around and celebrated with his team. As a mother, that was really touching to see.” 

 

Jennifer Greene is a communications coordinator for USA Hockey.
Issue: 
2022-05

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