The commonly used term “blind hockey” can be a little misleading to the general public as most blind hockey players have some functional vision. The sport is played by athletes with visual impairments ranging from legally blind – approximately 10% vision or less – to fully blind.
Traditionally athletes with the most functional vision play forward as they are able to make and receive passes, as well as locate the net for shots. Lower vision athletes and totally blind skaters tend to play defense where they can focus on interrupting the play and clearing the puck aside where a teammate with more vision can pick it up and skate it out of danger. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the players with the least vision or no vision play goalie as they do not need to orient themselves while skating around. The French term for the sport – “Hockey Sonore” or Sonar Hockey – provides a better description of the sport as it outlines the key modification – the puck makes noise!
The sport of blind hockey in Canada has a long and largely undocumented history dating back to the mid 1970’s. Various versions of the game have been played in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec, Renfrew, Toronto and Vancouver, and those are just the places we know of for sure. Because of the way the sport evolved simultaneously, there are several different versions of the rules, and many different versions of the puck. This is not uncommon in the development of sport – look no further than international sized ice compared to North American ice.
No surprise Blind Hockey is truly a Canadian invention as there is no evidence to suggest that it is played anywhere else in the world. (A google search will yield many versions of blind field hockey but no other ice hockey programs). 15 – 20 years ago the sport was thriving so much that there were full rosters and stories of heated rivalries between Edmonton and Calgary, and Quebec and Montreal to name a few.
Starting in 2008 the teams started to speak to one another and realized that despite their different pucks and rules, they had enough common ground to work together with the aim of creating an annual blind hockey tournament.
Les Hiboux De Montréal took it upon themselves to gain inclusion into the annual Defi Sportif multisport championships for athletes with a disability, and in 2010 invited their “brothers” from Toronto to take place in the first inter-squad blind hockey game in many years. Canadian Blind Sports sent a representative to facilitate a discussion between the 2 groups – and to provide feedback from the Vancouver Eclipse group – and the discussion at last year’s Defi really laid the foundation for the 3 team blind hockey tournament at the 2011 Defi Sportif.
The biggest difference between the teams is the adapted puck. Over the last 25 years there have been many different attempts at creating an adapted hockey puck, but there was never one that satisfied everyone.
Les Hiboux De Montréal have always stuck with their traditional 48 oz hollow juice can which provides excellent noise and moves slow enough it really encourages participation regardless of degree of vision or skill level. The can works surprisingly well, however is in the air too much, and needs to be replaced 7 times a game as it is constantly deformed. The main problem with the can is, simply put, it is not a puck.
The Toronto Ice Owl have settled on a large, hard plastic wagon wheel that has piano keys in it. The shape of the wheel functions as a puck, and the piano keys rattle to make noise. The drawbacks are that some players find that the pitch of the noise is hard to differentiate from the sound of skates, and that the weight of the keys causes it to spin off axis. Additionally Toronto lost their supplier as the wheel they used was discontinued and they are presently scrambling for an alternative.
The Vancouver Eclipse / Calgary Ice Dog puck is the only one of the 3 that is a custom designed adapted puck. It is made of metal, roughly the size of 2 rubber pucks, and has metal rivets inside. Out of the 3 pucks it behaves the most like a traditional rubber puck, but upon debate with the teams it was deemed to be too fast and too small, plus its steel construction can be rather intimidating!
Rather than debate about the pros and cons of each existing puck it was clear that a new, improved puck was needed.
The Courage Canada / NC State University Puck Project
Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind was founded by Mark DeMontis – a member of the Toronto Ice Owls – with the aim of teaching children who are blind or visually impaired to skate and eventually to participate in blind hockey. The organization also aims to grow the sport of blind hockey in Canada at all levels. Courage Canada formed a partnership with NC State University Faculty of Textile Engineers, the Canadian Blind Sports Association, and the Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver Teams with the goal of creating a new prototype to be unveiled for use at the Blind Hockey Tournament at Defi 2011.
The challenge we gave the engineering students? All 3 pucks have 3 common factors 1) they are bigger than a rubber puck, 2) they move slower than a rubber puck and 3) they make noise to help the players locate them. Simply put: build us a puck that takes the best elements of each of the existing pucks so we can have some common ground and grow the game in Canada and around the world. The students have been hard at work for months, have presented several different designs, and each of teams has narrowed their project down to 1 prototype they are presently manufacturing and testing. We are anticipating having these new pucks for Defi Sportif, where the Canadian Blind Hockey Community will assemble for the first time in many years to lay the foundation for a new era in Canadian Blind Hockey.
While the debate about how exactly the ideal puck should be is on the back burner while the students at NCSU build us a prototype, the next step is to try and unify the rules of these 3 similar, yet distinctly different games. Some sample rules from the 3 different teams and the reasons that they are implemented:
- Goals can only be scored in the bottom half of the net. Reason: Goalies are blind and pucks don’t make noise in the air
- You must make a pass in the offensive zone before you can shoot. Reason: Helps goalie know where puck is coming from. Makes game more inclusive and team based.
- If a player enters the crease of the goalie the play is blown dead and it is an offside. Reason: Safety! Players cannot necessarily see where goalie is, goalie cannot see where they are.
- High sticking is an automatic major penalty. Reason: Players need to be responsible for their sticks as people cannot necessarily see where they are.
- All players must wear a full face shield and neck guard. Reason: Safety!
- Players are given 3 feet leeway on offsides. Reason: Players with vision impairments can have difficulty knowing exactly where the blue line is – especially at full speed.
Not all teams employ all of these rules, and there are some other adaptations as well. However as a group Canadian Blind Hockey is committed to discussing and creating the best set of rules possible so that all Canadians, regardless of their degree of visual impairment, can fully take part in the national pastime.
Future of The Sport
The outlook for the future of blind hockey is promising. With the Canadian teams in constant dialogue, planning for an annual competition, and creating both a standardized set of rules and a much improved puck, there is a lot to be excited about. With Courage Canada already running learn to skate programs for 100 kids across the country in the 2010 – 2011 season alone, there are surely some future prospects who will join the ranks of the existing teams, and hopefully create new ones where there are not any.