Blind players realizing their hockey dreams

Mark DeMontis, who lost his sight at 17, is blazing a trail for blind hockey participation. He never had the chance to realize his NHL dream, but he’s now making other dreams come true for fellow blind players participating in the second annual Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament March 21-23.

By Brian O’Neill

For 17 years, Mark DeMontis dreamed of playing in the NHL. Then, one year away from an NCAA scholarship, that dream suddenly died. DeMontis, now 26, was diagnosed in 2005 with Leber’s Optic Myopathy, a rare degenerative eye condition that causes central vision to slowly deteriorate, which left him legally blind. He was told he would never play hockey again.

“It was my life and it was 17 years of me thinking it was going in one direction,” DeMontis says. “Then in a split second, I was told it was going in a completely other one.”

The disappointment eased over time and, after leaving university, DeMontis discovered blind hockey. He turned his personal challenges into Courage Canada, a national charity he founded in 2008. It’s the leader in the development of blind hockey and provides an outlet for kids who are blind or partially sighted to discover the game.

To raise awareness, DeMontis inline skated across Canada in two separate treks: from Toronto to Vancouver in 2008 and from Halifax to Toronto in 2011. Matt Morrow, now Courage Canada’s executive director, was working for the Canadian Blind Sports Association at the time and was one of two volunteers who alternated between driving the RV and guiding DeMontis. Morrow says that until DeMontis came along, blind hockey had been a fragmented sport, with teams primarily playing squads within their own town. At one point there were four different sets of rules, puck sizes and types of blind hockey being played. DeMontis and Courage Canada took the best elements and amalgamated the rules into one set, which they use in their annual tournament.

All players have 10 percent vision or less. The puck is slower and bigger, 5.5 inches in diameter, and has ball bearings in the middle so players can track it by sound. Goals can only be scored in the bottom three feet of the net and an offensive player must make at least one pass after crossing the red line.
On faceoffs, the puck begins on the ice and players draw on the whistle, ensuring it’s about reflexes not who has better eyesight. Other than that, it’s the same game hockey fans know and love.

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“A lot of people would be shocked to see blind hockey,” DeMontis says. “They would not believe that the athletes on the ice are visually impaired because of how fast-paced the game is.”

Last year, the first annual Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament was held at Maple Leaf Gardens. Forty-five players competed in a four-team competition that had a full round-robin and finished with a championship game, complete with medals.

Kevin Shanley, 36, was one of a few Americans to play. He lost his eyesight at six when he was diagnosed with Rod-Cone Dystrophy. Having played in rec leagues, he searched the Internet for “blind hockey” and found Courage Canada.

“It was amazing to meet other guys in similar situations and to see that they had all been playing hockey their whole lives,” he says. “I was always the only blind guy out there.”

When Shanley returned home, he co-founded the New York Nightshades with Christine Osika, a former Courage Canada intern who had also lost her sight, and got a weekly hour of free ice time to get started. Shanley and Morrow are now discussing a potential Canada-U.S. game in two years time.

This year’s tournament is March 21-23 in Toronto and interest has grown.

“I’ve had to put a cap on it based on the interest I’ve had,” Morrow says. “We’re going to allow a maximum of 64 players to compete in the tournament. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were closer to 100 next year and even exceeding that.”

The long-term hope is inclusion in the 2026 Paralympic Games, but for now DeMontis is focused on growing blind hockey.

“The goal is to have people come out and get more bums in seats and people realizing that this has now become a community of hockey players who are visually impaired, who love the game just as much as anyone else,” he says. “But they do need support.”

This feature originally appeared in the March 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.