Elton Thomas was checking his work email at the Lighthouse for the Blind in St. Louis, when he read one from his program director about playing blind hockey. Thomas, who has low vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder of the eyes, had skated now and then. He used to rollerblade as a kid, when his vision was better.
But blind hockey?
"I was just imagining this big ice rink with a bunch of chaos and blind people sacking each other with sticks," Thomas said. "I thought, 'I have to try this.'"
For Thomas,40, production supervisor at the Lighthouse, that attempt turned into a passion. Now he and others can continue that passion with the St. Louis Blind Hockey Club. The team, formed when the St. Louis Blues partnered with the Spirit of Discovery Park, hosted a learn-to-play event at Scottrade Center on Jan. 18. Former Blues forward Barret Jackman helped out and gave Blues jerseys to the players. Chris Zimmerman, president and CEO of operations for the Blues, said 23 players turned out for the January session.
"There's a wide range in terms of vision loss, and the other thing is, there's a really wide range in terms of exposure to hockey. We had some people out there who had never been on skates before," Zimmerman said. "The things that were remarkable were the courage to put yourself in that situation, particularly if you haven't skated and have had complete vision loss. And just the wonderful thing about it is to see a bit of joy that we saw in the people getting to experience this. We had men and women, we had a wide range of ages."
Each player on the team is legally blind, his or her spectrum of sight ranging from 10 percent to totally blind. Lowest-vision skaters are defensemen or goaltenders. More sighted athletes, like Thomas, are forwards. Their puck weighs the same as a regular puck but is bigger (5.5 x 2 inches), is metal and contains ball bearings which rattle to help players track it.
"You have guys, low vision to blind, they're tapping the floor, looking for the puck and it has that battlefield kind of feeling when you're out there," said Thomas, who relies on his hearing to locate the puck when it's more than 10 feet away from him. "It's kind of cool."
Coach Jeff Vann said the program has been inspiring.
"It's very rewarding to see somebody -- even a young kid who learns to play over a period of many, many years - to watch them grow and become better and better over time. To do it with someone with a disability like blindness, it makes it that much more rewarding to see them be successful," Vann said. "It's not only the game of hockey but the community that is being developed among this group of people. They're becoming friends and that, to me, is just as rewarding for us to go out and play the games."
With the club still in its beginning stages, Vann and the coaching staff are focused on player development. They'll start organized practices in March. Vann would love to see it grow to the point where the St. Louis blind hockey club is playing teams in other cities. Thomas also wants to see a bonding of all athletes with disabilities.
"People with disabilities, they tend to stick with their own kind. How cool would it be to mix that up?" Thomas said. "I would love to see, down the road, a youth team get kids out there who are blind, or even [with] other disabilities, playing hockey. Maybe we could all play together, people of all different disabilities playing together. It would be awesome."