ST. PAUL, Minn. - Sound in the game of hockey becomes more vital in a blind hockey game, from the loud rattle of an oversized puck to the constant communication between players to the exuberant cheers from the crowd.
"You'd never know how important sound is until it's what you rely on to play the game you love," said Minnesota Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson. "A lot people [in blind hockey] never thought they could play the game, and they're out here playing it and there's just an energy and a spirit that's incredible.
"There's so many things bigger than the game, and whether you're in the National Hockey League or blind hockey, it's a game for everyone, and everyone's just as important."
Hendrickson was one of several NHL alumni who took the ice against members of the U.S. National Blind Hockey team and its alternates at TRIA RINK on Thursday.
The game opened the 2019 USA Hockey Blind Hockey Summit, a weekend-long event in its sixth year. Roughly 60 players from around the United States and Canada will be evaluated to establish various levels and development for different team considerations. There are around 160 registered blind hockey players in the U.S. and currently teams in Minnesota, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Colorado, St. Louis, Washington, Hartford, and two teams in New York.
Richfield, Minnesota, native Nick Boisvert grew up playing hockey. When he lost his sight in 2012, he thought he also had lost the game he loved. He found blind hockey three years ago and reignited his passion on the ice and beyond.
"It's changed my life," said Boisvert, one of the alternate forwards with Team USA on Thursday. "When I lost my sight, I pretty much shut down. … I had to redo everything, and I missed hockey. Once I found out I could play, it opened up everything. I started going for all the goals I had. I've achieved more since I lost my sight because of learning that I could play hockey than I did when I did have my sight."
Since its inception in the U.S. in 2014, blind hockey has become one of the fastest growing segments of disabled hockey. The game is played with minimal adaptations. The most significant rule change is the requirement of one pass in the offensive zone before shooting and scoring in order to allow low-vision defensemen and goalies a chance to track the puck, which rattles with each movement. To further alert the back end of a potential shot, an official will blow a whistle once the pass is complete. Other game alterations include nets that are reduced to 3 feet as opposed to the traditional 4 feet, and along with the rattle, the puck is roughly the size of a dinner plate and moves across the ice at a slower rate than a regular puck. Players vary in age from youth to adult and range anywhere from legally blind (10 percent of vision or less) to fully blind, with forwards generally have the most sight (B3 classification) defensemen less (B2) and goalies generally the most visually impaired (B1) if not totally blind.
"Hockey is hockey, and hockey is for everyone," NHL alum and current Florida Panthers assistant Andrew Brunette said. "The game is so important to all of us, but to see the joy, the love, and the passion for the game, it was really something. It's phenomenal to see and it was a real privilege to be on the ice with them tonight."