Destination San Jose For Blind Hockey

By Bruce Porter, Jr.

BVA hockey participants have returned from San Jose after completing their first appearance at USA Hockey’s Disabled Festival. We led a team of five of our top veteran athletes who have been developing into blind hockey players. Previous issues of The Bulletin have reported on the VA adaptive sports grant that has made blind hockey a reality.

After catching a red-eye flight from Ronald Reagan National Airport, the team landed in San Jose ready to play. Other visually impaired veteran athletes were traveling from Connecticut and Los Angeles to meet up with our team.

Although they had been to several countries during their time in the service, for some of the veterans this was their first time ever visiting California! The athletes tried to relax before dinner and then went to their first practice at the San Jose Sharks facility at 8:00 that night. Manny Rivas had traveled from Los Angeles to meet the BVA team in San Jose. It was his first time playing blind hockey and he absolutely loved it!

Participants at the San Jose event pictured together.

Participants at the San Jose event pictured together.

Many of the visually impaired athletes competing at the USA Hockey Disabled Festival attended the BVA Blind Hockey Weekend in February. It was exciting to see how everyone had progressed. We are indeed the pioneers of the most exciting adaptive sport destined to be played at the Paralympic Games. The practice ended with a scrimmage game in which the athletes were able to try their new found skills against one another.

As we headed to the bus, there were smiles galore and a number of tall tales related. The next day promised to be another action-filled day for our blinded veterans playing blind hockey.

For many of us it’s hard to imagine—team sports, exhilaration of scoring a goal, even locker room banter—something that is not normally possible for those who have lost their sight. These were some of the things that crossed my mind after that first day. As an organization, we are helping our veterans realize their dreams in ways they never thought would be possible.

And that’s what it has to be all about.

During the scrimmage on our second day, our local DC veteran athlete, Jackes Belony, suffered a sprained ankle while trying to score a goal. A trip to the beautiful Palo Alto VA Medical Center confirmed that Jackes was to stay in an air cast for four weeks! We are happy to report that he has since returned to the ice and will play with the Warriors veteran team at their Memorial Day Weekend tournament.

While in San Jose we had a meeting of the top minds in USA and Canadian Adaptive Hockey and planned out the next 12-16 months of blind hockey events. On behalf of BVA, we announced our partnership with U.S. Figure Skating, leveraging the nationwide Learn-To-Skate program for all visually impaired athletes. Thanks to this partnership, any visually impaired athlete can now learn to skate safely at a rink that is most convenient for them. This will feed new players into the blind hockey program and open up options for visually impaired athletes to pursue ice dancing, figure skating, or continue in the Learn-To-Skate Program.

Left to right, blinded vet Jackes Belony, Chicago blind hockey team Coach Carla Pentimone, and youth hockey player T.J. Stewart.

Left to right, blinded vet Jackes Belony, Chicago blind hockey team Coach Carla Pentimone, and youth hockey player T.J. Stewart.

On the third day, veteran Lawrence Harrison played his first blind hockey game. It’s a testament to Lawrence and the military “I Can Do It” attitude that has propelled him from learning to skate at the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink at the National Gallery of Art to playing blind hockey in San Jose in a few short months. Lawrence was also featured in the Washington Post for his artwork while he was competing in San Jose. We can’t be more proud of him!

The fourth and final day at the USA Hockey Disabled Festival was an early, fast-paced game. We took control with visually impaired veteran Craig Fitzpatrick leading the team. Craig may be the top blind hockey player in the USA as he continues to show us that there are no limits to what one can accomplish. Craig was instrumental in the final game of the fourth day, controlling completely the speed and pace of the game.

All of the hockey equipment, time on the ice, and coaching are provided for visually impaired veterans to learn to skate and play blind hockey through the VA grant. We hope to build four strong teams in the coming year as we train visually impaired athletes nationwide and select a national team to play in an epic USA-Canada match!

Bruce Porter, Jr. is currently BVA’s Blind Hockey Program Director and Coach of its DC-based Washington Wheelers hockey club.

Audio Version Of Blind Hockey Weekend Brings Energy, Inspiration