When the AMI 2015 Courage Canada Blind Hockey Tournament kicks off on Feb. 13, it will be a celebration of an incredible effort by Mark DeMontis and the Courage Canada team – an effort that has seen the tournament grow, teach and inspire those who participate, watch and volunteer.
Diagnosed with Leber’s optic neuropathy, a rare degenerative eye disease, DeMontis was left blind by age 17. A promising hockey player before losing his vision, DeMontis said he went into a depression from age 19 to 22, something he accredited to being away from the game for so long. In search for something to inspire, DeMontis looked to Chris Delaney, an athlete who after losing his vision to Leber’s like DeMontis, rode across Canada on a tandem bicycle in 1996.
“One day I was looking at my bedside at my parent’s home in Weston, and I had an old pair of rollerblades just sitting there,” said DeMontis. “I remember going to bed that night, and I just had this vision in my head of being on skates across the country, meeting people and getting something moving and started. I didn’t exactly know what that was, but shortly after I realized what I was passionate about was the sport of blind hockey.”
In 2009, DeMontis turned himself back into an athlete, hit the gym hard, and prepared to make a journey, just like Delaney had more than a decade before him. DeMontis, then 22, took a pair of rollerblades and set off on a 5,000-kilometer trek from Toronto to Vancouver. It was more than simply a show of dedication, stamina, or ability; it was a skate towards making a dream become reality. The journey from Canada’s largest city to the West Coast made Courage Canada come to life and allowed DeMontis to create an organization to give other visually impaired athletes their chance to take part in Canada’s game.
“What (the skate) did was provide us with some base funding and then we could really start having conversations about bringing people together,” said Matt Morrow, Courage Canada’s Executive Director.
It took four difficult years of organizing smaller events until the first tournament became a reality, said Morrow. But in 2013, they finally got the competition off the ground.
“We kind of had to beg, borrow and steal just to have 45 players in (for the inaugural tournament in 2013),” said Morrow. “It was the minimum number of players we needed to have the tournament. But last year we really grew and had 64 players.”
Morrow said roughly 60 percent of the players come from Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, but the tournament has grown each year with participants now coming from Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. The 2015 competition, which is sponsored by Accessible Media Inc. and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, will be the first ever to have six teams, including Team Ontario, Quebec, Pacific, Atlantic, West, and Central. By the time the tournament is underway, 80 skaters from across Canada and the United States will be taking part in the action.
“I compare the tournament’s growth to the cool kid in school’s birthday party,” said DeMontis. “Once you find out about the party and he goes back to school, you think to yourself, ‘I really want to go to that party, too.’ ”
Played using a special 5.5-inch by 2-inch puck filled with steel bearings, the game itself is not all that much different than watching adult safe league hockey, said Morrow. Really, it takes everyone a few minutes to realize what’s taking place. And once people do, they’re entranced.
“Most people, if they saw someone trying to locate the puck, they would be like, ‘Hey, this hockey player’s not that good,’ ” explained DeMontis. “But there’s something fascinating about someone who is visually impaired or totally blind trying to find the puck while someone else with low vision is trying to do the same thing as well. That’s part of the entertainment and the value of coming to see the game. It’s something you’ve never seen before.”
But don’t take that to mean DeMontis is knocking the skill level. It’s exactly the opposite, actually, and his point is a salient one. In what other arena could you watch something as remarkable as a visually impaired hockey player locate a puck out of a scrum, take it up ice, and net a goal without the aid of sight?
“I think people are generally pretty blown away by the level of play and the level of skill,” said DeMontis. “A lot of players are somewhat similar to myself and played hockey growing up. Now, they’re applying playing the game with little or no vision. I’ve been in a game with Joey Cabral, a blind goalie from the Toronto Ice Owls, and in warmups I’ve taken a pretty hard shot and seen him catch it in his glove.”
While some might say that’s simply a routine save, Cabral is totally blind and used his spectacular talent to make a glove stop that few would expect of a visually impaired athlete. It’s plays like that, DeMontis added, that could bring a building full of spectators to their feet.
And for this tournament, that’s the hope: to fill the building and increase the blind game’s recognition. Admission to the tournament, which takes place from Feb. 13 to 15 at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre (the former home of Maple Leaf Gardens), is free and there are games being played throughout Ontario’s long weekend. Fitting, too, that the tournament concludes on the same day as Hockey Day in Canada, when all eyes are on the country’s national pastime.
“Our goal is to have people come watch other people live out their dreams and subsequently inspire them and see a game they’ve never seen before,” said DeMontis.
By bringing people in to watch the game, DeMontis hopes to grow the sport’s exposure. Already Courage Canada has expanded to give birth to Courage USA and there will be several American players skating in the tournament. DeMontis hopes the next step is international growth, with the ultimate goal being to get the sport into the Paralympic games. But as Courage Canada works to achieve its next big goal, DeMontis and his team are simply proud of living in the moment and enjoying what they’ve already accomplished.
“For people to come to the Maple Leaf Gardens from across the country, and to see it now after three years, it’s just more people becoming part of the community and part of the journey and helping more people together,” said DeMontis. “And hockey aside, that’s just a really special thing.”