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For this team of the Blues Blind Hockey Club, there's freedom and fun on the ice

Tom Timmermann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Hockey

Eric Kaiser bumps into a lot of things.

Kaiser suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that is gradually taking away his eyesight. He has tunnel vision, and the tunnel keeps getting smaller and smaller. It’s worse at night, when he can only see shapes.

“I have walked into many things,” he said. “Me and those ‘Caution Wet Floor’ signs, we do not get along at all.”

Once a week, though, he has a chance to break free. Kaiser is a member of the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club, a four-year old group consisting of players who are legally blind. For the players, the time on the ice is magical.

“I can go as fast as I want,” said Kaiser, 25. “The most freeing moment is when I’m going as fast as I possibly can, the wind going through my cage. It’s when I feel like I’m back to being me.”

“I feel like I can push everything aside and focus on the game,” said Seyoon Choi, a junior at St. Louis University. “Typically mainstreamed sports we try to play, even high school cross country, had to make lot of modifications and adaptations, and it takes a steep curve to climb up to proficiency to compete against the sighted crowd, while blind hockey, all the players are blind, we have the same kind of challenges and we still skate at different skill levels and you get that game and competition going.”

The club, one of 17 around the nation, most in NHL cities, will be the host this week for USA Hockey’s Blind Hockey Classic at Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, with blind players from around the nation, including players on the U.S. national blind team and Canada’s blind team. Few clubs have enough players to field a full team – the St. Louis club has 10 or 11 on most days – so players from various clubs will be mixed to make teams.

Blind hockey still looks like hockey, which is one of the things its players like best. The most noticeable difference is the puck, which is about twice the size of a standard puck, is made of metal and has eight ball bearings inside so it makes noise when it moves, allowing players to track it even if they can’t see it. Attacking players are required to make one pass after they cross the blueline before taking a shot, a rule designed to give goalies a chance. And, in a rule which seems weird at first, the goalies play blindfolded, which ensures that all goalies are equal.

The players on the Blues club came to the sport without any ice hockey experience – Kaiser had played roller hockey – and in many cases little or no skating experience, so their education starts at the beginning. That adds to the challenge for the coaches, who can’t avail themselves of the most common teaching technique.

“As a coach coaching youth hockey,” said Jeff Vann, who helped start the club and works with the players on ice, “you tell them what to do, demonstrate it, then have them do it. You can’t really demonstrate it. You have to be able to tell them what to do and use very specific commands and explain it.”

“The guys are truly amazing,” said Chuck Munroe, the club’s director of player development. “They pick up on things by using other senses. They can tell if they’re close to the boards by hearing echoes and the like. It’s truly amazing. There’s a player for the Washington Capitals team who is completely blind, but if you watch him play, you’d think he’s a beginning (sighted) hockey player. He’s able to go around the net, knows his stride, figured out where he is on the ice in other ways. They’re all doing the same thing. They don’t have the vision we have but are able to figure out how.”

 

The Blues club players are not at that level yet, but they’re working on it, and events like the Blind Classic gives them a chance to share strategies with other blind players.

“My biggest challenge with decreased peripheral vision is blind spots,” Kaiser said. “The closer the puck is to me, the harder it is to find if I’m not locked in on it. … When I’m skating full speed ahead, I’m constantly watching the player with the puck to see if there’s a pass and I kind of lose track of where I am on the ice and sometimes I’ll take a shot that will be extremely wide. If I’d taken an extra half second and assessed where I’m at, I’d have a better chance putting a good shot at net. … Some players have told me they use the advertisements along the board, so if they look up and see that, they can map out the ice in their heads and know the goalie’s got to be there. To not be consistently looking down is one of the things I need to improve on in my game.”

Sean Borah, a goalie on the team, was instrumental in getting the team going. (He refers to himself as a co-founder.) He had a friend at Oakville High who was on the hockey team and became interested in the sport. While in college, Borah, who also has retinitis pigmentosa (“I could have this for 90 years or I could go blind tomorrow,” he said), wondered if there was blind hockey and found there was, mostly in Canada and the northeast. He liked all the pages he could find on social media and reached out to them saying he would love to do this in St. Louis. He almost immediately got a response from someone in Washington who worked with blind veterans, who flew out to St. Louis to talk about setting up a club. Soon after, in 2017, the first blind hockey event was held at Kirkwood Ice Rink and the club took form.

Borah started playing defense – generally, players with the best eyesight play forward and players with the worst play defense – but then migrated to goalie after getting a concussion. Since goalies in blind hockey can’t see anything, the position puts an emphasis on fundamentals.

“Communication with the team is paramount,” he said. “All I’ve got is communication between my team, hearing their voices and what they’re saying, the sound of them skating around, the sound of the puck. The fundamentals are squaring to the puck, having a wide butterfly, being in the correct position at all times, coming forward enough to cut down on the angle on a shot. There’s definitely a lot to think about.”

Games do not go without hitches. The pucks, which cost $50 each and are made by one person in Canada, make noise by having the ball bearings rattle around inside them while moving, but that means when the pucks stop moving, they stop making noise, which in a game would cause play to be whistled dead. Choi is part of a team working to fix that.

“It’s super challenging because our puck doesn’t make noise when it stops,” said Choi, who has a degenerative retinal condition called Leber aumarosis and has eyesight of 20/3,000. “I was invited to work with a graduate student at SLU developing a new type of blind hockey puck. It’s going to be constant, it’s going to be durable. It has to resist a lot of different elements. You’re going to be hitting it with a stick, it has to bounce off the boards. I’m collaborating with them, giving them first-hand feedback. This is how I feel on the ice, this is how we work together in blind hockey.”

The club would love to branch out, to get more children involved – right now, it’s mostly a young adult group -- and to get to a point where it had enough players to challenge a team, like the one in Chicago, to a game.

“It definitely has a great impact,” Borah said. “Especially if the blind person was mainstreamed, a lot of times they were not included in team sports or couldn’t play, or weren’t included on the recess blacktop. It is giving people that haven’t had a chance a chance to experience the camaraderie of team sports, and the love of the wonderful game of hockey. It allows people to break out of their shell and be more social than they may or may not have been in past.”

“Our common thing,” Choi said, “is we’re blind and visually impaired in some shape and form. Being able to play the sport we love, it’s an incredible experience.”

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