Pittsburgh, a driving force behind Hockey programs for people who are blind

This sounds so cool and like so much fun! Has anyone tried this?


Pittsburgh a driving force behind hockey programs for the blind

Bob Batz Jr. / Post-Gazette

The campers stepped into the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, firing questions.

“Are we on the ice?”

Counselor: “No, we’re not on the ice yet.”

“Can we see the rinks?”

No, they could not, because of these 58 young people, ages 5 to 18, half are completely or almost completely blind. The others have a range of vision impairments. As part of this week’s Envision Blind Sports camp, they were bused Wednesday from Slippery Rock to the Penguins Rinks to try blind hockey.

Yep — blind ice hockey. It’s a new thing, and Pittsburgh looks to be a driving force behind growing it, here and across North America and beyond.

Wendy Fagan, an assistant professor in Slippery Rock University’s Adapted Physical Activity Program who has been running blind sports camps for more than a decade, first tried ice hockey here last summer. It was a big hit, and led to the creation of the Pittsburgh Penguins Blind Hockey team that recently finished its first season.

It’s one of just four teams in the U.S., but they hope to change that, now that they have the support of the new nonprofit for local special teams, Hockey Sticks Together, which in turn is supported by the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. HST’s executive director, Michele Humphreys, recently talked about the program at the Annual Congress of USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo., and that governing body is holding its fourth annual Blind Hockey Summit here on Oct. 6 to 8. The public will be welcome to come watch games. Mrs. Humphreys hopes that eventually, every other NHL team will support special teams like this.

“People are always surprised when you say ‘blind hockey,’ ” she says. “They’re, like, ‘How does that work?’ ”

It’s pretty much hockey with a few modifications. The puck is almost twice as big — 5½-by-1⅞ inches — and made of hollow metal with eight ball bearings inside so players also can track it by sound. The net is a foot shorter, to help goalies who tend to be completely blind. Defensive players tend to have the next-worse vision. The three legally blind forwards must make one pass, and then the referee blows a signal whistle to alert the goalie, before they can shoot and score. There’s no contact. In theory.

“When we knock each other around in blind hockey, it’s always by accident,” the campers were told by the affable Matt Morrow, sport director for the just-formed International Blind Ice Hockey Federation. He came to lead the instruction from Canada, where blind hockey has had three decades’ head start. “At our national championship,” he said, “you can watch for 10 minutes before you know they’re blind.” One of his goals is to get the sport into the Paralympic Games by 2026.

Mrs. Fagan’s on board with that, but more immediately, “We want to make physical activity available to everyone.” In a training session before the hockey camp, she and her counselors had volunteers wear blindfolds so they could better empathize, but advised them, “These athletes are not fragile!”

Most of these campers had never even skated. So organizers started with an hour of just skating. There they were, suited up in donated, loaner helmets and shin and shoulder pads, heading out onto the cold unknown.

“Do you remember how slippery ice is?” asked one of the many volunteers who were paired with each camper.

“That’s a lot of ice,” one camper quietly said.

A few also were assisted by walkers, chairs or sleds. There were plenty of falls, but not as many as you might think. There were a lot more big smiles.

“They’re the bravest kids I know,” said Dani Mauer, a Slippery Rock senior who has been blind since birth in her right eye, and has a new retinal disorder in her left one. She was a first-timer last summer, but loved that taste of hockey so much that she joined Penguins Blind Hockey, which has a roster of about 15 youths and adults. She’s now a camp counselor.

The camp took to heart former Penguins player Tyler Kennedy’s advice that the most important thing about hockey is, “Have fun!” The big pucks sounded like cowbells clanging as campers and counselors, blind players and sighted volunteers messed around to start the hockey session.

Mr. Morrow lead those who could skate the most independently through drills that included stickhandling, even passing. After making it, if haltingly, from one side of the rink to the other with the puck, 13-year-old Adison Lemmon of Latrobe high-fived 11-year-old Derrick Day of Finksburg, Md. She was beaming.

Mr. Morrow also taught them how to lie on the ice and make snow angels.

“Can we play hockey now?” asked 6-year-old Danika Johns of Apollo, one of the campers who was raring to go. “I don’t like skating,” she said. “I love it!”

Everybody had a chance or two to shoot on a huge volunteer sighted goalie, Ian Cohen, who, quite frankly, wasn’t as impenetrable as he appeared. Of course, he was encouraging every shooter — “C’mon … c’mon!” and tapping his stick on the ice to help their aim.

When rookies such as 11-year-old Tommy Guy of Apollo managed to bury it in the net with a CLANG!, Mr. Morrow showed them how to celebrate.

He feels great about the strides the local blind hockey program is making. “To see what they did in Pittsburgh in one year is incredible.”

He’ll tell you how the actual hockey — one of the speediest, skill-intensive sports there is — is just “a small part” of something that’s been a “life-changer” for many blind people. But it’s also a key part. “If you can play hockey” — he smiles —“you can probably do anything.

You can contact the program by emailing envisonblindsports. Its new website, envisionblindsports.org, is to go live soon.

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz,

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