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Vision beyond sight

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Driven to help others, a blind hockey player inline skates across Canada

For being legally blind, Mark DeMontis has incredible vision.

Five years ago at the age of 17, DeMontis was entering his final year of high school in his hometown of Toronto, Ont. The strapping scholar was the envy of many, being athletically gifted with brains and personality to match.

In the blink of an eye, his world was turned upside down.

In August 2004 DeMontis was diagnosed with Leber's Optic Neuropathy, a degeneration of retinal ganglion cells which left him legally blind with no central sight. His peripheral vision was gone, all that remained was a partial ability to capture details, such as shapes and shadows.

A budding hockey player with an NCAA career on the horizon was suddenly thrust into a world of almost total darkness. Being a teenager can be difficult enough without a life changing experience to boot.

“It was devastating for him, he was thinking of letting go of his presidency of student council and he was depressed, for a number of years actually,” said Paolo Abate, a lifelong friend of DeMontis.

“What was more devastating for him other than losing his eye sight was that he couldn’t figure out how he was going to play hockey and that was such a big part of his life.”

DeMontis’ love for the game he grew up playing helped him turn the corner from feeling sorry for himself to wanting to help others. Inspired by Chris Delaney, a promising football player who was also diagnosed with Leber's Optic Neuropathy but used the disability as a vehicle to raise money and awareness for eye research by biking across Canada, DeMontis set out to accomplish a similar goal.

“When I was going through a tough time that inspired me to bring my spirits back up and get back into my passion, which is obviously the game of hockey,” said the 22-year-old media student from the University of Western Ontario.

“I decided I was going to go across Canada to make a difference for blind youth to play the game.”

This past June DeMontis strapped on his inline skates, grabbed a helmet, some gloves, a jersey and a stick, and set out on a trek of over 5,000 kilometers that would lead him through five provinces ending in Vancouver.

On Friday, October 16 DeMontis arrived at the Riley Park Community Centre in Vancouver, his journey complete in just 111 days.

“It was very demanding. Every day having to put in 50 to 70 kilometers on the skates, which was roughly seven to eight hours, mentally having to get up every day and lace up your skates and just take in each hill, each incline and decline, it was tough.

“All that considered, I’m very proud that I made it to Vancouver and I’m proud I got through everything.”

The expedition was long as it was hard and some days DeMontis didn’t think he could go on. Luckily he had Skippy peanut butter and The Tragically Hip by his side, one for protein, the other for motivation.

DeMontis was recognized by the Canucks on Oct. 17 and he even got to share his adventures with numerous Canucks, including Ryan Johnson, Roberto Luongo, Willie Mitchell, Alex Burrows and Steve Bernier. Burrows and Bernier, both Quebec products, have driven through Ontario before so while they were taken aback by DeMontis’ accomplishment, they were more stunned that he was able to navigate his way across the horrible highways leading into Manitoba.

As amazing as DeMontis’ achievement is, it’s only phase one of his mission. Phase two is where he truly plans on making a difference in the lives of the visually impaired.

Last year DeMontis founded Courage Canada, a national non-profit organization trying to introduce the game of blind hockey to blind youth across Canada.

It’s a lofty mission but thanks to the support of numerous parties, including Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators, it’s one that DeMontis can envision being fulfilled.

Each journey starts with a single step and DeMontis is hoping his Quest to the West across Canada will help inspire others, with or without disabilities, to strive for their goals.

“I think it would be tough for someone to go across Canada normally, so being legally blind made it a completely different story.

“The biggest thing is that whether you have a disability or not, whether you’re with or without sight, whether you’re a boy or a girl, whoever you are and wherever you’re from around this world, you just need to do everything in your power to fulfill your passion, whatever that may be. Whether you’ve got a disability or not, you go out there and you follow your hopes and dreams because they will come true.”

Click here to read more about DeMontis and his journey across our home and native land, and for information about his mission of bringing blind hockey to Canada.

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