The first time the blind discipline was implemented at USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Festival in 2016, there were a little over 30 players.
A lot has changed in just two years.
Blind hockey ballooned to 86 players at this year’s Disabled Hockey Festival, which was held in Chicago in early April.
J.J. O’Connor, who is the chair of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, said blind hockey — which is one of six disciplines recognized by USA Hockey — has players who are thirsty to participate.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised, because there are many blind hockey players out there that want to play,” O’Connor said. “The sport seems to be growing rather quickly and to have that good representation only a few years after introducing the discipline in the U.S. is great.”
In 2017, 42 players skated in the Disabled Hockey Festival.
“Tremendous turnout,” said Mike Svac, USA Hockey Central District representative for disabled hockey and Festival chair. “Great representation from throughout the country with players and also coaches.”
The 86 players came from all around the United States as well as Canada. With the robust numbers, the players were divided into four teams and competed against each other for four days in early April.
“It was really a great way to do it,” O’Connor said. “The games were close and everybody seemed to have a fantastic time.”
There was a wide range of skill level and age — 17 to 60 — competing in the event.
“We have older players that are pretty skilled and then we have some younger players that are pretty skilled,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got a couple of younger players that seem awfully good to me. The U.S. is definitely on the upswing. We’re going to be all right. We’re going to have some good players and we’re excited for the skill level of the players we’ve got so far.”
Since USA Hockey is assembling a blind team to compete at the international level, representatives took advantage of the fact that the best blind hockey players in the country were all gathered in one place.
Coming into the event, 30 players were pre-selected to be evaluated at the Festival to make the U.S. team. A tryout was held during the tournament and 21 skaters and two goalies were selected following the first wave of cuts. Those players now have to be verified for their level of visual impairment to guarantee they can move on with the process.
“Our efforts right at the moment is getting the vision classifications so we know exactly which players are eligible,” said Svac, who has been named the team’s head coach.
The next step is a camp around the third week in July where the players will come together and pare down for a final roster, which will consist of between 15 and 17 players.
The team will then prepare to play Canada in a home-and-home series. The first game will be held in Pittsburgh in October. The second game is yet to be locked in, but it will be in Canada in the early part of 2019.
“This is the first time this will ever be done,” O’Connor said. “Canada is super excited because they’ve wanted this. Their players are thirsty to play international competition.”
In order for a player to compete in international competition, they must be classified as either having B1, B2 or B3 blindness per the International Blind Sports Federation.
Since the competitors can’t see the puck, there are adaptations to blind hockey. An oversized puck is used that is made of hollow steel and contains eight ball bearings to create a sound. Once a player enters his team’s zone, the player must complete one pass to a teammate — when that happens a special whistle is blown that alerts the goalie and the other team a shot could be forthcoming.
Blind hockey is starting to gain momentum from NHL organizations. For the last three-and-a-half years, Svac has been the head coach and general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks blind hockey team where there are 26 players on the roster. Svac added that the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights are getting heavily involved with blind hockey.
“We’ve had these pockets of teams that are doing things and it’s growing,” Svac said. “Now we’re starting to pick up individuals that don’t have a program in their neighborhood [and] they want to compete.”
There’s no slowing down the trend for blind hockey. O’Connor and Svac know the interest in the discipline at the Disabled Hockey Festival is just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s overwhelming,” Svac said. “You never would think it would have grown as fast as it has.”
Said O’Connor: “I just can’t imagine and I’m so excited to see what the future holds for this discipline because I think it’s really going to explode even more.”
Note: Kevin Shanley is the acting blind hockey representative. USA Hockey will name the official blind hockey representative at the conclusion of the organization’s Annual Congress this June.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.