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Blind hockey offers fellowship, thrills

Kevin Brown gives instructions to skaters during a family-and-friends skating session in December at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va. Brown is a member of Washington Wheelers Blind Hockey Club. Photo for The Washington Post by Essdras M Suarez

The skate-safe rubber-matted hallway at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia, fills quickly on a Sunday morning in January. People hurry in carrying hockey sticks; bulging bags of gear line the walls. At first glance, it looks like any other weekend at an ice rink.

But there are harnessed guide dogs calmly navigating through the crowd, some skaters are wearing sunglasses or making their way with white canes, and people are including their names in greetings: "Hi, it's Matt." "Hi, it's Karen." They're all here to try, or help others try, a sport new to the Washington region, and to the country: blind hockey.

The Washington Wheelers Blind Hockey Club is hosting today's event, which includes a group skate and a demonstration game, to increase awareness and recruit players. Once everyone has the right gear, Wheelers players and several volunteers join about 20 newcomers of all ages on the ice. Some tentative skaters take the right-angled arms or gloved hands proffered to them; others carry canes into the rink and tap the wall as they go.

Club co-founder Craig Fitzpatrick, 41, wearing a Wheelers jacket and a USA Hockey baseball cap, stops next to a boy in orange snow pants standing uncertainly near the door.

"Come on the ice with me," Fitzpatrick says, swiveling backward and reaching out, so the boy can hold his hands. He pushes off, gently gaining speed until the boy's strides grow longer and more confident. Player Emily Molchan, 24, skates with Remington, her 4-year-old Labrador retriever, who slides around the ice wearing protective bootees.

Tina Butera, a pediatric ophthalmologist and club co-founder, watches in a white Wheelers sweatshirt. "There's a blind person skating with their seeing-eye dog," she muses aloud to no one in particular. "What's your excuse today?"

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Canadians have played organized blind hockey for over 40 years; in French, it's called "hockey sonore," meaning hockey played by sound. But blind hockey - players range from legally blind (or 20/200 corrected vision) to entirely blind - has been officially organized in the United States only since 2014. Kevin Shanley, of New Paltz, New York, a 39-year-old engineering professor who has been legally blind since age 6, co-founded the first organization, the New York Nightshade, four years ago; Fitzpatrick calls him "our George Washington."

Matt Morrow, sport director for the International Blind Ice Hockey Federation as well as the executive director of the Canadian Blind Hockey Association, estimates there are about 100 players in the States, about 50 of whom are still learning, but the game is growing quickly here. According to Morrow, there are now nine American groups: the Wheelers, established in February 2016; a newer Washington, D.C.-area group, the Washington Elite, which is run by the Blinded Veterans Association; two teams in New York; and teams in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut, and, as of last month, Denver. (The Wheelers partnered with the BVA during the 2016-17 season, but they are now separate organizations. The Elite, which receives some funding from a Department of Veterans Affairs grant, practices in Alexandria at the Mount Vernon RECenter and, like the Wheelers, hosts introductory programs and regional events.) Canada, by comparison, has about 125 players and seven programs, according to Morrow; names include the Calgary Seeing Ice Dogs and the Vancouver Eclipse.

In both countries, the local organizations offer training and scrimmages but don't usually compete against one another. Players, however, can attend regional and national tournaments in either country. National events in the United States include the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, scheduled for April in West Dundee, Illinois, and the Blind Hockey Summit, which took place last fall near Pittsburgh. And Canadian and American organizers are working toward a four-nation tournament by 2020.

Erin Dawkins, left, scrimmages with Kevin Brown, center, and John Guzik. Photo for The Washington Post by Essdras M Suarez

Blind hockey looks a lot like standard hockey: Players swoosh down the ice, passing a puck with the goal of slinging it into a net. But it sounds very different. The adapted puck - a hollow metal canister filled with ball bearings, which is nearly twice the size of a regular rubber puck - rattles across the surface, clanging like a bunch of cowbells when a hard shot sends it into the boards. Skaters find the puck by listening for it. "It's loud!" Butera says. "It's so simple, it's genius."

Before play begins, teammates guide goalies - who typically have the least vision on the team - to their nets, which are about a foot lower than regulation to minimize high shots goalies can't hear coming (the puck doesn't make much noise in the air). Players have to complete one pass before taking shots on net, which helps alert the goalie and other defenders to an approaching puck. A referee also uses a special electronic whistle to signal when the pass has been completed and the team is eligible to score. Jerseys are in bright, high-contrast colors so those with contrast sensitivities can differentiate teams (white jerseys are not permitted because they blend in too easily with the ice). No checking is allowed.

"People don't understand how blind people can play hockey," says Wheelers Coach Nick Albicocco, 35, who is sighted. It's the sound, he says, that helps players adapt: "The game of hockey by its nature is a confined space. Because you have boards and you have glass, it already confines the sound. You're not in the wide open, you're not losing sound."

"It's when the puck stops that I don't know where it is," says goalie Doug Goist, 49, of Alexandria, who lost his vision completely to retinitis pigmentosa. "All I hear are the skates sloshing around - shh, shh, shh - so I know roughly where [the skaters are], on the left side or right side or in front of me. And I can hear people whacking their sticks on the ice, which means pass it to me."

Kevin Brown describes how sound helps him as a defensive player. "When the goalie talks, he's focused on that one place, in the crease, all the time. He's always my 6 o'clock. So, if I think I am going northeast but I'm going east-west, and the goalie chirps, then I'm thinking, 'Oh! That wall's coming up faster than I thought.' "

When those unfamiliar with ice hockey hear about blind players, they're often surprised. "People think it's a dangerous sport to begin with, so it's not something they think blind people can do," says Eileen Brown, Kevin's wife. But players like to prove doubters wrong. "When I told my eye doctor I was thinking about playing hockey, he said, 'Absolutely not,' " Fitzpatrick says. "And I said, 'I am absolutely going to do it after you said that.' "

The Wheelers' logo nods slyly at the perception of danger. It features a man on a motorcycle, wearing a helmet with a solid visor. His hockey stick is behind him while his seeing-eye dog perches in the sidecar. Fitzpatrick - an Air Force veteran and CEO of a technology company whose vision loss stems from Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration - calls it an inside joke. "Low-vision people tend to have a wicked sense of humor about our lot in life," he says. "Devil-may-care, we're going to go play."

Tyrese Springer, 17, jokes with his mother Toyanda Wimby during the December skating session. Photo for The Washington Post

Diana McCown's preteen sons, Nate and Aiden, both have albinism, often associated with vision loss. They have been playing with the Wheelers for a little over a year, and they fly around the ice during the group skate until their mother calls them off. How do they feel out there? "Happy," says Nate. "Happy," agrees Aiden. "I like ice."

McCown, 44, of Takoma Park, Maryland, saw information about a blind hockey event on a D.C.-based albinism-focused online group. "I really thought it was going to be a one-time thing," she says. But after the first practice, she says, Nate told her, " 'Mom, I'm going to go to school tomorrow,and I'm going to tell all my friends I'm a hockey player.' And it takes your breath away, right? And one of the pieces I try to build in my kids is try to own who they are, and if they want to go play ice hockey and they can't see a darn thing, then let them go play hockey."

Other young Wheelers include another player with albinism, Tyrese Springer, 17, a high school wrestler who travels to practices from Catonsville, Maryland, near Baltimore, and Caleigh Griffiths, 19, of Chesapeake, Virginia, who attends Old Dominion University. An experienced skater who grew up playing with sighted teammates, Griffiths has familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, which causes progressive vision loss. She says blind hockey is easier "because everyone else is pretty much at the same sighted level that I am, so it's not like I'm fighting to be where everyone else is." Predicts Shanley, who is also the blind hockey representative for USA Hockey: "Give it five years, and we are going to have a bunch of kids' teams."

But even players who didn't come early to the sport love it. Goist, who is a program manager for IT services projects at National Industries for the Blind, met Fitzpatrick in a bar one evening. "He started mentioning blind hockey and I just started laughing for like two minutes. Because it was beyond my understanding of how that would work," Goist says. Though he agreed to come to an introductory event, he had no intention of participating. "I just wanted to see what it was about and support it," he says. Nevertheless, he found himself in goal, wearing pads and skates. He's still there.

Brown, who is 46 and from Falls Church, Virginia, had played and coached many sports - including soccer, basketball and football - but had no ice hockey experience before he started skating with the Wheelers. The director of marketing for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Brown has cone-rod dystrophy, a degenerative condition, and now only has light perception. His vision had worsened in 2016, around the same time he found out about the Wheelers.

"My philosophy in life is, I'm not afraid to fail, I'm afraid not to try," he says. "So, coming out was exciting, and I did a little skating, and the next morning they said, 'You want to come out and play in a hockey practice?' And I said, 'Hey, there must be a higher power telling me to come out here.' And I've loved it ever since."

Kettler and Arlington County, Virginia, donate ice time to the Wheelers, and a nonprofit called Leveling the Playing Field offers gear - so players don't have to pay to participate unless they travel to competitions. Fitzpatrick's goal for the Wheelers, which is also a nonprofit, is to raise money to hold more events, buy supplemental gear and support travel. "The only real way to experience the whole blind hockey deal is to be part of these competitions also," he says. "Otherwise, you're just practicing every week." Brown traveled to the Blind Hockey Summit in 2017, playing in six games in a weekend. "It was a blast," he says. "So personally motivating and humbling at the same time."

At the Wheelers' weekly practices, there are usually seven to 10 blind players of varying ages and skill levels. This means that during scrimmages, sighted players often fill in for still-developing blind skaters; Fitzpatrick would like the program to grow enough for scrimmages to consistently be five-on-five, and blind on blind. "That's kind of the benchmark for when you realize that your program has grown and become sustainable," he says.

Mainly, though, Fitzpatrick wants more visually impaired people to experience what hockey has to offer. "It's turned me around, big time," he says, a sentiment echoed by other players.

"I can't get enough of it," says Brown. "You get a lot of people that have similar challenges, and for an hour and a half on the ice you forget all those challenges."

Playing hockey upends assumptions about blindness, says Molchan, who has Stargardt disease. "People think that blind people can't do things, but they really can," she says. "There's nothing a blind person can't do. Except maybe see."

Anderson Ayala, 15, who is visually impaired and Leslie Saenz, 5, who is sighted, try ice skating for the first time

It's time for the demonstration game, and the new skaters and their families line the bleachers, listening attentively as an announcer reads the rules over the loudspeaker. Emily Molchan's dog waits with her at the door, tail wagging, apparently ready to head back onto the ice. She hands his harness to Diana McCown, and skates out, wearing a red Wheelers jersey.

There are 24 players, including 10 sighted players who will fill in but won't take shots. Teams wear yellow and red. Goist is in one net. In the other is Ian Cohen, 28, a sighted volunteer and client services director of Leveling the Playing Field; he pulls a knit stocking cap over his helmet to act as a blindfold.

Albicocco, serving as referee, hoists the puck and rattles it. The McCown brothers, starting at center for opposing teams, face each other as the puck drops, clattering onto the ice. Immediately, the air is filled with sound. Sticks clack, skates shoosh, and the puck clanks into the boards, creating a racket that echoes. When players make long passes, the puck doesn't jangle as much, but then - wham! - Springer knocks it, and it rattles across the ice. Players shout at each other - "Here!" or "Center!" - and Albicocco's electronic whistle trills, signaling that a pass has been completed. Cohen, in net, gets ready for a shot.

Aiden McCown, wearing No. 4 for the yellow team, scores. His teammates crowd around, embracing him and cheering. The crowd cheers, too. But the celebration lasts only a moment. Then, the rattle of the puck cracks the air. It's time to play on.

After the game, the players, cheeks ruddy, file out past a clapping audience. Brown, who scored to help propel the yellow team to a 2-0 victory, reflects on the day. "The fact that I scored a goal is so infrequent, and it doesn't happen a lot with a blind defenseman," he says. "But the highlight of the day was when we were taking the picture. Craig and I were standing in the front and there was a young man behind us, probably early teens. And he said, 'Mom, Dad, this is so much fun. I want to do it again.'"

Emily Molchan skates with guide dog Remington at a skating session in January. Photo for The Washington Post by Essdras M Suarez

Story by Eliza McGraw. McGraw is a freelance writer in Washington. Photos for The Washington Post by Essdras M Suarez.

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