Blind Hockey Weekend Brings Energy, Inspiration
By Stuart Nelson
For a handful of blinded veterans and 33 additional blind and visually impaired athletes, Super Bowl weekend in the Washington, DC area played second fiddle to the three days of training, competition, educational activities, and enjoyable camaraderie they experienced at the 1st Annual Blind Hockey Weekend sponsored by BVA.
The unique February event, part of a wider hockey initiative unveiled by the Association in early November, was made possible through a grant awarded to BVA by the VA Office of Adaptive Sports Programs for Disabled Veterans and Disabled Members of the Armed Forces.
“This has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life,” said Program Director Bruce Porter at the Saturday evening awards and recognition banquet as he began presenting certificates to each participant. “It is an honor and inspiration to associate with all of you and to serve as a witness to your courage, ambition, and determination.”
Blinded veteran Jim Sadecki, right, teamed up with New York Nightshade’s Christine Vanturini for ceremonial puck drop for the championship match between the Washington Wheelers and Pittsburgh area team. White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn, middle, attended the event and dropped the puck. Participants in the weekend event personally signed a souvenir blind hockey puck for McGahn at the Saturday banquet.
The weekend began with the arrival of participants at the Hilton Arlington Hotel in Northern Virginia, from as far away as Connecticut to the north and Southern California to the south and west. Shortly after registration, the group departed with volunteers and instructors for the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington for a 90-minute dedicated practice.
“Despite all of my recent sports activities, including all I did at last year’s VA Winter Sports Clinic, I definitely exercised muscles and parts of my body today that haven’t been used in a while!” said Mid-Atlantic Regional Group member Michaun Harrison, who traveled to the area from Fredericksburg, Virginia, with fellow group member and Richmond area resident Doris Jones. “It was fun to put on some ice skates and give this a try.”
The overriding purpose and focus of BVA’s program and the VA grant is to provide enjoyment and recreational rehabilitation opportunities to veterans such as Michaun and Doris who may have never before tried the sport or even donned a pair of ice skates.
Saturday activities included a morning outdoor public skating opportunity at Sculpture Garden Ice Rink in Washington, DC, an optional tour of the National Gallery of Art, and other guided tours. Air Force OEF-OIF era blinded veteran Jim Sadecki of Burlington, Connecticut, took his son and sighted guide, Carson, 16, to Arlington National Cemetery for the first time.
The early evening banquet was followed by a practice session at the adjacent Kettler Capitals Iceplex facility and a culminating showcase championship two-period match featuring the Washington Wheelers, participants in the weekend program and BVA’s long-term initiative, against a similar team and initiative from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the Mario Lemieux Sports Complex/Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation.
White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn performed a ceremonial opening puck drop for the championship match, which ended 4-4 in regulation. The score remained in a 4-4 draw after a five-minute overtime period.
Attending “Try It” sessions as a beginner last November at the urging of his wife, Tahara, visually impaired veteran Jackes Belony has developed new self-confidence after learning to ice skate. Jackes had never played competitive sports before giving blind hockey a try.
Participants then woke up to an early dedicated practice at the Iceplex Sunday morning followed by additional opportunities to sightsee and skate at Sculpture Garden.
“I am overwhelmed by how the weekend went and so proud of everyone who supported the event in any way,” said Bruce. “The challenges along the way were offset by how much joy and exhilaration we all felt at different times during the activities.”
The larger VA-supported BVA blind hockey program continues to seek interested athletes in the Washington, DC area to participate in weekly “Try It” sessions at the Kettler facility within the Ballston Commons Mall, which is a two-block walk from the Ballston Metrorail Station. The Sunday morning sessions typically begin at 8:40 a.m.
Despite never before having put on ice skates or participated in an organized sport, OEF-OIF blinded veteran Jackes Belony found out about blind hockey at VA and, from the outset of the “Try It” sessions, began attending them with the blessing and encouragement of his wife, Tahara DeMaio.
“She told me that I needed to go give it a try and that maybe I’d surprise myself,” he said. “The instruction I’ve received from Bruce and the other coaches has been just amazing, and now I feel totally comfortable on the ice.”
Jackes believes it is only a matter of time before he can feel the same confidence in competitive hockey. “I just need to learn how to coordinate my feet and hockey stick movement with where the puck is and with the overall flow of the game.”
The “Try It” sessions mean more than one-time attendance. The program takes players who have never skated before and introduces them to the basics of skating, equips them with gear, and safely trains them to go as far as they wish to go in hockey, which is considered the only adaptive winter team sport.
At right, Doris Jones, Mid-Atlantic Regional Group, pauses for some hot chocolate and a photo during blind hockey “Try It” Session at District of Columbia’s Fort Dupont Ice Arena. At left, Emme Porter, wife of Blind Hockey Program Director Bruce Porter.
“We are excited about moving blind ice hockey forward to take a more prominent place among popular activities for those with vision loss, especially veterans,” said Bruce. “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.”
Although the rules for blind hockey are similar to the sighted game, an enlarged, slower moving puck with loud ball bearings is used. 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.
Adaptations for the blind and visually impaired within the sport include full protective gear, including face mask. The game is played with International Ice Hockey Federation safety protocols, including no-touch icing and crease violations to ensure utmost player safety.
Blind hockey also requires goals to be scored in the bottom three feet of the net as it is unfair to the goalie to score in the top portion. The adapted puck does not make noise in the air. Teams must complete one pass prior to being able to score in the attacking half of the rink. This provides both the low-vision defense and the goalie an extra opportunity to track the puck.
Bruce said that because hockey is considered the fastest, most aggressive game in the world, those who take up the sport usually develop increased mobility and balance almost immediately.
“BVA is involved in helping our blinded veterans and to help blind associations introduce the sport to their athletes with the hope that blind hockey will be added to sports programs for the blind and visually impaired,” he added. “My role is to organize the ‘Try It’ sessions and coordinate ice time, coaching, media, and equipment.”
Bruce is confident that the interest generated in the initiative will eventually spread to blind and visually impaired veterans throughout the country.
“Most of our players thus far are very enthusiastic and blind hockey is great cross training for all sports,” he said. “This is a unique and amazing opportunity that could well lead some athletes to the Winter Paralympic Games in the future.”
For an introduction to the excitement of blind ice hockey and the enthusiasm of those who play the sport, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsovpuJ7SMc.