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Blind hockey taking off in United States

Fastest-growing game among six disabled hockey disciplines, has over 200 players nationwide

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

Kevin Shanley offered a disclaimer before he joined an adult recreational hockey league in Indianapolis in 2012.

"I told them 'I can skate, I can stick-handle, I can do all the necessary hockey things -- I just can't see,'" said the 41-year-old, who began losing his vision at age 6. "I can't really receive a pass or anything like that, but I just want to come out and play.' They were happy to have me, they needed bodies."

But Shanley's elation from being on the ice turned to frustration about a year later when he had a particularly hard time locating the puck during a game. His frustration led to a search for a better way for blind or visually impaired people to play hockey.

"I played beep baseball at some point in my twenties, so I said, 'Maybe if they figured out a baseball, they figured out a [beeping] puck,'" he said.

Shanley's quest didn't turn up a beeping puck, but it did help launch blind hockey in the United States, which has become the fastest-growing game among the six disabled hockey disciplines. The others, being highlighted by the NHL this week, are sled hockey, special hockey, deaf/hard of hearing hockey, warrior hockey and standing amputee hockey. 

"It's really taken off, it probably rivals sled hockey," said Doris Donley, the blind hockey representative for USA Hockey.

Donley said there are 15 blind hockey teams in the U.S. spanning from Seattle to New York.

"Typically, we've seen two or three programs pop up each year," she said. "This coming January, Grand Rapids, Michigan, will be the next program starting."

Shanley, who preceded Donley as USA Hockey's blind hockey rep and is a former member of its national blind hockey team, said there are about 200 blind hockey players nationwide, and the number is growing.

The Washington [D.C.] Blind Hockey Club saw its player roster grow from two in 2016 to 21 this season.

"It's really just awareness," said Nicholas Albicocco, coach and hockey director for the club that plays out of the Washington Capitals practice facility. "Just getting the word out. We do a lot of community outreach -- every six months, we try to do an event with one of the schools for the blind, whether it's Virginia or Maryland."

Participation in blind hockey has surged in the U.S. to the point that a friendly rivalry with Canada, which originated the game in the early 1970s, is blossoming. 

A U.S.-Canada blind hockey series was launched in 2018. This year's edition of the three-game series was played Nov. 8-10 in Ottawa.

The U.S. and Canada are on a mission to grow blind hockey worldwide in hopes of making it a Paralympics sport by 2026. 

"A really exciting development is that Russia has actually started a youth program in Moscow, England has started a program with Blind Ice Hockey UK and Finland is hosting its first training camp in January," said Matt Morrow, executive director of Canadian Blind Hockey.

Shanley's Google search for a blind-friendly puck in February 2013 led him to Morrow and Canadian Blind Hockey which, by coincidence, was days away from launching a national blind hockey tournament.

Morrow persuaded Shanley to participate in the tournament and he became the first American to compete in the sport. The experience taught Shanley about how the blind game is played.

Instead of a traditional puck that's made of vulcanized rubber, blind hockey uses a larger puck made of hollow steel that contains eight ball bearings which creates a loud clanging sound that players can easily follow.

Teams must complete one pass in the attacking zone before a scoring chance to give the defense and goalie the opportunity to track the puck.

An on-ice official uses a different whistle to indicate that the pass has been completed and the attacking team is eligible to score.

All players must be legally blind, and their eligibility is based on three International Blind Sports Federation classifications. What position they play is usually determined by the degree of their blindness.

Typically, totally blind athletes play goalie or are on defense, lower-sighted athletes are on defense while higher-sighted players are forwards, according to USA Hockey.

Shanley quickly became a blind hockey disciple at the Toronto tournament and an advocate for the game when he returned to the United States.

"When you're out on the ice playing blind hockey, you don't have to worry about all the barriers and limitations you deal with in your day-to-day life," said Shanley, who is a goalie. "The puck is larger and it makes noise so you can find it. Other people on the ice are blind, so if you're skating the wrong way or skate into someone, they understand. There are no steps or poles that you have to worry about. You become a hockey player."

Shanley partnered with USA Hockey and Canadian Blind Hockey to play the first blind hockey game in the United States on Oct. 18, 2014 during the first Blind Hockey Summit in Newburgh, New York.

An exhibition game with U.S. and Canadian players was played during the 2015 USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in Buffalo.

The sixth annual USA Hockey Blind Hockey Summit was held in August at the TRIA Rink, the St. Paul practice facility of the Minnesota Wild. The goal is to keep growing the game in the U.S. and abroad.

"I had never really been part of the blind community," Shanley said. "And to be able to meet and get to know other people who are in the same boat as me -- they're blind, they have jobs, they have families, they had lives they were trying to live -- and they're playing hockey."

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