Toronto hosting Canada’s first national blind hockey tourney
Published Saturday, February 16, 2013 7:00AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, February 16, 2013 7:18AM EST
When a few dozen hockey players step onto the ice at the former Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto this weekend, they won’t be playing just any kind of hockey. That’s because every player is either blind or visually impaired.
But this weekend, they’re gathering for Canada’s first ever national blind hockey tournament, called the Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament.
The event was organized by Courage Canada’s founder, Mark DeMontis. DeMontis is a talented player who was one year away from playing NCAA hockey and had dreams of going pro when he began to lose his eyesight.
“Like most kids who dream about playing in the NHL, I too had that dream. But at the age of 17, I was diagnosed with Leber's Optic Neuropathy,” he told CTV’s Canada AM this week.
The rare, inherited condition eventually robbed him of most of his sight.
“It took away the central sight in both my eyes and unfortunately left me legally blind. But it put me one a new path of life,” he says.
In 2008, he founded Courage Canada, a charity that works with school boards across the country to operate more than 20 learn-to-skate programs for visually impaired kids, as well as Play Blind Hockey programs. The charity has helped about 250 visually impaired players, some of whom will be playing in this weekend’s tournament.
“Blind hockey” is a bit of a misnomer, since the sport is played by both fully blind players and those who have as much as 10 per cent of their vision. Those with the most vision tend to play forward as they are best suited to making shots on goal and passing. Lower-vision players tend to play defence, while players with the least vision or no vision play goal, since they don’t need to move around the ice as much.
The game is played much the same as traditional hockey, but with a vastly different puck that’s designed to make noise as it moves.
The puck varies depending on where the game is played. In Quebec, for example, they’ve long used a large juice can, filled with small objects that rattle inside it. But the puck tends to get battered around a lot in the game.
Others have tried a metal puck with ball bearings inside that makes higher pitched sounds and is easier to hear. But the puck itself can be dangerous if it hits players or the glass boards.
The Toronto tournament will use a hollow plastic wheel from a kids’ wagon. The puck is large and moves slowly, but some players have complained that the rattles inside the plastic sound too much like the players’ skates on the ice.
DeMontis says players are still working on it.
“There’s been a number of variations in the puck over the last 40 years in blind hockey. Courage Canada is working to standardize the puck,” he says.
Gary Steeves, who plays goal for the Vancouver Eclipse blind hockey team, says he’s excited about this weekend’s tournament.
“This is our first four-team tournament. And for most of the visually impaired and blind players, this is the first time they’ve ever played in a real ice hockey tournament. So it’s very exciting for them,” he says.
Steeves says the long-term goal is to get blind hockey into the Paralympics by 2022.
Mark Bentz, who also plays for the Vancouver Eclipse, says he’s always loved hockey but had to stop playing in Grade 8, when a degenerative condition took his sight. Then, 12 years ago, he heard about blind hockey and says it’s become the highlight of his week.
“Every Friday, I go home and tell my wife, ‘God. it was another good day’,” he says.
He also likes helping younger kids learn the game and to act as their inspiration.
“The kids can look at you and say, ‘Hey, I can still do what I want to do even though I’m losing my sight.’ And they’re just so excited,” he says.
The 2013 Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament runs through Feb. 17 at Mattamy Athletic Centre. Admission is a donation in support of Courage Canada.