Hockey provides bright spot for visually impaired

27/02/2011. Sunday, Febuary 27. Blind or those with impaired vision play a game of hockey at the Rose Kohn arena in Calgary. Teams include two sighted players on each team to help guide the blind players. Game is played with a metal puck with a ball in it so that it rings while it is shot across the ice. Photography by Deborah Powell.

At 21 years of age, I am rushing forward into an exciting life, studying Journalism Arts at SAIT so that I might be able to live this life to the fullest, doing what I love.
But there is a problem. I am going blind.
I’m losing my peripheral vision – and eventually my entire visual field – to a disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).  It was passed down to me by my grandfather, who had no sight by the age of 40.  With the way things have been going, it appears I will one day be in the same boat.
Going blind isn’t something I would wish upon anyone.  My independence slowly slips away each year, and I have to let go of things that I love, like using a camera.  Not being able to take photographs, or even get around by myself, is something that will be a detriment to my career. It’s also one of the greatest fears in my life.
But there are some things I know I will be able to do, no matter how much I can see.
Hockey has been ingrained into my psyche since I was a child.  I can no longer play with a regular puck, as it is easily lost in my blind spots. But I still play my favourite sports as a member of Calgary’s blind hockey team, the Seeing Ice Dogs.
Originally supported by the Alberta  Sports and Recreation Association for the Blind (ASRAB), the team has been a free agent since 1992.  It was dropped after ASRAB almost went bankrupt, and captain and manager Randy Cameron, who’s also been diagnosed with RP, has been running the team himself ever since.
He and close to 14 other skaters pay $202 every Sunday night at the Rose Kohn arena to play a unique version of the much-loved Canadian sport.
Five visually impaired players chase an oversized metal puck filled with ball bearings.  When it’s gliding across the ice, the puck makes a bell-like noise. Sighted players on the ice act as aids, guiding the play along.
The goalies are also sightless.  They shout directives when they hear the puck enter the zone, so the players know where to fire a shot.  They make saves based on what they hear.
The play is generally slower than normal hockey, as skaters handle a puck they can only hear and feel.  But experienced players have been feeling the play, rather than seeing it, for most of their lifes.
“When you get good at this, the sounds of the ice change,” said Cameron.  “You can hear the sound of the ice change when you skate near the boards.  You can hear the sound of the equipment rustling, and the sound of another skater approaching.”
I will never forget the first time I was dumped to the ice by someone with far less vision than I have.  I was chasing Cameron across centre.  When I reached for the puck, he felt my presence and cut hard to the left, driving his shoulder into my chest.
As I sunk to the ice, unable to catch my breath, he continued to skate towards the sound of the goalie’s calls.
That moment, along with many others on the ice, serves as a strong reminder of a human’s ability, even when all sight is lost.
“(Blind hockey) gives us a chance to show people that we are capable of doing something even though we have lost our sight,” said Cameron. “It goes to show that where there is a will there is a way.”
For the most part, losing my vision has been a burden.  The bitterness I carry, the anger I feel, and the fact that my condition drives a wedge between me and other people stems from my inability to cope with this personal crisis.
But over the past few years, I’ve received a seemingly heavenly shift of heart, mind and soul.  In a world built to facilitate creatures who interact mainly with their sense of vision, I’m learning that we really don’t need our sight to remain who we are.  I am learning I will be able to lead a strong and effective life like countless others have done before me.
Because of hockey, the thought of going blind is becoming less dark for me.  The more I think about life without vision, the more stories I find about people who achieve incredible things and live amazing lives without their sight.
There are so many people in this world, like the Seeing Ice Dogs, who have taught me there is hope after my disease fully robs me of my vision. People like them continue to stand as examples to everyone going blind that there is hope after all sight is lost.

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