The Canadian Blind Hockey Association’s annual tournament is taking place this weekend at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, and this may be the most important tournament in the sport’s history because it could be the first step for blind hockey on its journey to become a Paralympic sport.
Friday night featured the tournament’s inaugural ‘Select Division’ game, which is a contest that pits the tournament’s best players against each other, pulling from each of the competing teams in order to provide a showcase for the game. The game, which the Eastern select team won 4-2 over their Western rivals, was hopefully the first of many steps on a long journey the CBHA is taking to create a World Championship and position the sport to become part of the Paralympics by 2026.
“The idea behind it is to have a more competitive division while still maintaining the inclusive approach and making sure everyone is able to participate in the tournaments,” said CBHA communication director Nick Beatty. “The goal is to develop the competitive side in terms of trying to find players who are moving toward a World Championship is ideally what we’re trying to develop here.”
In order to do that, though, the sport will need to grow. At present, blind hockey is primarily played in Canada and the United States. The tournament is only in its fourth year and it hasn’t gained much traction abroad. The hope, however, is that this tournament will create a showcase and that the methods put in place to create competitive balance in the Select Division can be the stepping stones for furthering the sport. The idea has been back of mind for a few years now, Beatty said, but it picked up steam following the 2015 tournament.
“We had the number of players and level of skill to have a separation here to develop the Select Division,” Beatty said. “I think it became apparent after the tournament last year that (this) year was going to be the year we were going to try and implement it. Sure enough, we have the numbers, so we decided to move ahead with it.”
It’s not as simple as pitting the best teams against each other, though. There are guidelines that need to be followed in order to make things equal.
“All competitive parasports must have a classification system to ensure that the competition is fair and equal, and that the outcome is determined by skill and performance, rather than degree of impairment,” says CBHA executive director Matt Morrow. “In a team sport like blind hockey, implementing a point system is crucial as it allows teams that are made up of athletes with different degrees of visual impairment to compete with and against each other in best-on-best competitions, with the overall level of vision on the team being equalized.”
To level the playing field in the Select Division, teams are made up of players given three different classifications: B1, B2 and B3, each of which are identified by helmet color. B1 players are generally goaltenders, while B2 players wear white helmets and B3 players don black helmets.
“B1s typically have no vision and are generally the goalies, B2s are defensemen and have five percent vision or less, and B3s, which have 10 percent or less, are forwards,” Beatty explained. “The way that works is they’re each allocated a certain point value and you can only have a maximum of 14 points on the ice at any given time.”
Because the sport is only beginning its growth — this year’s tournament has 77 players, the most in its four-year history — Beatty said the Select Division teams have been made up through a selection process with a focus on competitive balance. This is a showcase for the sport and it takes careful planning, especially when considering the points system.
“We’ve picked the best (players),” Beatty said. “Obviously you have to have a certain amount of B1s, B2s and B3s out there, but it was a very customized selection process by Matt Morrow and the board.”
The hope, Beatty added, is that following this tournament the CBHA can begin to speak with other organizations in an attempt to grow blind hockey internationally. If that means demonstrating and showcasing the game overseas, Beatty said that’s what the CBHA is prepared to do.
The Select Division will play two more games this weekend, with action at 5 p.m. ET Saturday and a tournament-closing contest at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday. All games will be broadcast live at www.blindicehockey.com.