Blind Hockey Night in Canada

Canada loves hockey so much that not only do the blind play hockey, they also get pretty fucking good at it. We went to a scrimmage between the two sides that make up the Hiboux de Montreal hockey club, and talked to a couple of its players to see what...

Mar 27 2013, 7:52pm

Could you make a glove save without even looking? Unless you are this blind goalie, the answer is no. You couldn't.            

You could say that Canada loves hockey more than any other country on the basis that everyone here plays hockey; from babies to Gordie Howe; from Matthew Perry to Stephen Harper. And since the Canadian men's team has eight Olympic gold medals and twenty-four IIHF World Championship gold medals, it’s no surprise that blindness doesn't stop Canadians from playing hockey, or stop them from kicking ass at it.“When you think about it, it’s kind of nuts.” François Beauregard tells me in the locker room, after the weekly scrimmage between the two sides of les Hiboux de Montreal. “When I started playing, I said to myself: ‘What are we doing? We’re blind and we’re playing hockey?’ But after a few games, I realized that I had to let go of those fears and just play.”

François plays right wing and is also the vice-president of les Hiboux (the owls), Montreal’s only blind hockey team who have been around playing weekly scrimmages since 1978. There are other teams scattered throughout Canada.

By necessity, blind hockey must have a few rule changes. The players have to rely on sound, memory and verbal communication, so a tin can replaces the puck because it makes noise when it bounces around the ice. The forwards must pass before they take a shot on goal, so that the goaltender can hear the location of the puck and play automatically stops if a player enters the goal crease, for the protection of the goaltender.

I arrived at l’Aréna Raymond-Préfontaine in Montreal’s east end, and asked around the orange team’s locker room (in my awkward French) for François, who I had talked to on the phone a week earlier. They told me to go next door to the black team’s locker room. Before the game, François told me that he had played hockey until he started losing his vision in his late twenties. Today, at fifty-four, he’s been playing with les Hiboux for seven years. He said that his vision is “caving-in,” due to a degenerative condition. He described everything else as “unstable, grey and brown pixels with dull blinking lights.” The players range in generation from millennials to baby-boomers. The causes of their blindness, I later find out, range from physical accidents to diabetic retinopathy. Many have a little bit of vision, although some have none, including one of the goaltenders. I should mention that the most severely-impaired usually play goalie because it doesn’t require them to skate as much. Not that that makes it any less righteous.

My photographer, Jordan, and I had hoped that he would be able to get out on the ice to take pictures during the game. The team tells us that there’s no way in hell he can do that, but if we want, he can take pictures on the ice during their warm-ups.It immediately becomes clear why Jordan can’t take pictures on the ice during the game: these guys are fucking badass. They skate fast, both forwards and backwards. And when you combine their speed with the fact that they can’t see, a photographer, too busy taking pretty pictures with his DSLR, is an accident waiting to happen. As François puts it: “We don’t look like stupid penguins out there.”

The tin can before the first faceoff.

The discarded tin can after getting slap-shotted for a period.

Some of the players weren’t born visually impaired and learned how to play hockey before they lost their vision. But some had never played hockey until they had lost their vision. François explained that: “The most important player on the ice is the newbie, because we want him to stay with the team. We have to alleviate his fears. We give him time and space to develop confidence. We even go easy on him for a few games, let him carry the puck for a few seconds before we go after him.”

There are four players wearing bright-yellow socks, so I asked the referee why four of the players are wearing bright-yellow socks. He explained that they are able-vision players. These guys aren’t allowed to score; they’re just there to help fill out the lineups because they don’t always have enough blind players. The referee also tells me that the team once told another journalist that the yellow sock players are dangerous ex-convicts who play as part of their rehabilitation program. Nice one, ref.

After twenty minutes of warm-ups, the tin can drops and the game begins. One of the usualHiboux goalies has stomach flu, so they are using four formidable, orange traffic cones to defend one net, with the goalie alternating teams between each of the four, shortened periods. Besides that odd compromise, it would be hard to tell these guys are even blind with the way they fly around the rink. Don Cherry would cream himself.

Eventually, the black team scored in the second period to take a 1-0 lead. They maintained that lead until the fourth period, when, with about seven minutes to go, the particularly skilled #78 of the black team was tripped, and the referee awarded a power play. Even though the orange team survived the power play, the black team’s 1-0 victory seems all but secure with only a few minutes remaining.

However, right after the power play ended, the orange team snuck the can past the goalie to tie it up at 1-1. The goaltender (playing for the black team in this period) argued to the ref that the forward who scored hadn’t passed the tin can before shooting—he had no idea where the puck was. The referee decided that he knows what’s best and the goal stood. I couldn’t help but think that in any other hockey game, the goalie might accuse the referee of being blind.

Within another minute, orange scores again, sending the puck silently flying over the goalie’s left shoulder. They now lead 2-1 with 2:40 remaining. The black team pulled the goalie, and orange scored an empty-netter with ten seconds left to win 3-1.

After the game, I went to the orange locker room to speak with Bruno, one of the other English speaking players. As if playing centre for a blind hockey team weren’t impressive enough, he’s also a paralympic goalball player for Team Canada. Bruno tells me that he began losing his vision when he was eighteen. Today, at age thirty-four, he estimates he has lost 95% of his vision. When I asked him how the team impacts his life he told me “it’s important to meet other blind people, to socialize and to get some exercise.”

Later in the black team locker room François expressed a similar sentiment to Bruno: “This team helps us to socialize with people who have the same challenges and frustrations. It gives us a great sense of accomplishment. There’s also the sheer pleasure of skating and going all out. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, when you’re visually impaired, you spend your life being careful. We cannot run or even walk too fast. We cannot find the same exhilaration of speed and feeling free any other way.”

François then added: “the socializing is important for the younger players who want an idea of what the future holds for them. It’s important for them to meet visually impaired adults who have families, spouses and jobs.”

Blind hockey is slowly growing. The charity Courage Canada organizes a national tournament and encourages young people to try the sport. Gary Steeves, goaltender for the Vancouver Eclipse, recently told CTV that “the long-term goal is to get blind hockey into the Paralympics by 2022.” Of course, Canada can’t compete against itself, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.

I’d be willing to wager that Canada is the only country that plays blind hockey, and if there’s an obscure Russian blind hockey league out there then they need to step up their social media game so we can find them and report on it. Only in Canada, a country where children are perpetually playing hockey on the back of our money, and where scientific studies predicting the end of outdoor skating rinks get national attention, would blind guys get together on Monday nights to play hockey.

François says it best: “We find ways to play the games we love.”

Follow Noah on Twitter: @NoahTavlin

Other articles about blind people doing cool shit:

I Interviewed a Blind Film Critic

We Sent a Blind Guy to SXSW