Initially, John O’Connell didn’t want to play blind hockey. Now he travels multiple hours to meet teammates for practice, and recently he took part in USA Hockey’s biggest blind hockey event.
O’Connell was one of 26 players who participated in the 2022 USA Hockey Blind Hockey Classic, which took place Oct. 21-23 at the SportONE Parkview Icehouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I’m quite a bit older than everybody else, but my doctor actually recommended that I should check it out,” O’Connell said. “At first, I didn’t want anything to do with it because in my mind it was going to be very depressing. It was going to be a bunch of blind people who thought they were playing hockey, but when I went, it was anything but that, and everyone was very welcoming.”
O’Connell is a former pilot who served in the Air Force, enlisting after the 9/11 attacks. O’Connell, who is from New Jersey, is legally blind with a retina problem and he plays both blind and warrior hockey with New York Metro Blind Hockey, based out of Long Island.
Photo credit: Nancy Myers-Scholz
“People think that if you’re blind, you can either see or you can’t see and it’s nothing like that,” said O’Connell, who went blind when he was in his 50s. “My eye condition is peripheral and night vision. It’s like looking out of a straw and my vision is very good in the straw, but it’s not in the periphery. Imagine looking out of a sniper rifle. You wouldn’t walk around a crowded area looking out of the scope of a sniper rifle. You wouldn’t see anybody next to you, so I have to scan a lot.”
O’Connell, who has played blind hockey for eight years, traveled to Fort Wayne for the yearly event with his daughter Kristin. When he first started playing, he traveled by train from New Jersey to Washington. Now, it’s a four-hour, one-way commute on public transportation to play, but O’Connell doesn’t mind.
“The blind hockey community is almost like a family atmosphere,” O’Connell said. “It’s not about the hockey.”
This was the second Blind Hockey Classic — the first took place in St. Louis last year — but the discipline has been played in the U.S. for the last eight years. A blind hockey exhibition game between the U.S. and Canada also took place at the event this year.
Brandon Beaver, USA Hockey manager of disabled hockey, said that blind hockey is the second-fastest growing segment of competition behind warrior hockey.
“Blind hockey is absolutely jaw-dropping when you see the ability that some of these players have,” Beaver said. “We have players and goalies who are completely blind, with no vision at all, and to see them out there performing … it’s exciting to see how good and passionate they are. It’s really fantastic.”
Players’ levels of vision ranges from legally blind — approximately 10 percent vision or less — to totally blind. Blind hockey features an adapted puck that makes noise and is both bigger and slower than a traditional puck. Custom three-foot-high nets are used — rather than the traditional four-foot nets — to keep the puck low to the ice so it can be tracked and make noise.
Teams must complete at least one pass in the attacking zone before they can score. This provides the low-vision defense and the goalie an extra opportunity to track the puck. An on-ice official uses a different whistle to indicate that a pass has been completed and the attacking team is eligible to score.
“The puck helps immensely, and the rules help,” O’Connell said, adding that it’s made of tin and has ball bearings inside. “With the pass whistle, you have to be fair to the goalie. The goalie isn’t doing anything and then all of the sudden he gets hit with a puck. He has to know that the game is in his end, so it gives him a chance to key in on the puck. There’s very few differences if you look at it … it’s subtle, but I’m very impressed.”
It’s part of the reason why O’Connell has continued to come back for nearly a decade to enjoy the competition and the family atmosphere.
“There’s a lot of real positive things besides the hockey,” O’Connell said. “It’s a really great group of people and everyone is so welcoming.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.