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No Barriers

A pair of January events will highlight the opportunities for people with disabilities to play the game of hockey.

Story by Mark Newman

Hockey knows no borders, as the game draws players from around the globe at all levels, with dozens of countries represented just among the ranks of players in the National Hockey League, AHL and ECHL.

But for those outside of the pros, there can be significant barriers to playing the sport due to a range of financial, social and physical factors. Fortunately, hockey also offers opportunities for people with disabilities of all types.

The Griffins will showcase the inclusiveness of the game during the weekend of Jan. 25-26, with two events designed to create greater awareness of the possibilities to play hockey that might surprise some people.

Grand Rapids Sled Wings
Taggart VanderMolen plays for both the Grand Rapids Sled Wings and the U.S. Development Sled Hockey Team.

On Saturday, Jan. 25, the Griffins will host Hockey Without Barriers Night presented by Comerica Bank, a special celebration of the game that will highlight the different opportunities for people with various disabilities to enjoy playing the sport.

“The whole point of Hockey Without Barriers Night is to introduce to the people of West Michigan the idea that you can be a part of the sport no matter your disability,” said Brandon Nelson, director of game presentation for the Griffins. “There are many different avenues for people to experience the game of hockey.”

During the two intermissions, the Griffins organization will feature short on-ice contests by the Grand Rapids Sled Wings, a team of sled hockey athletes with physical disabilities, and the West Michigan Special Hockey Association, an amateur-level ice hockey program for children and young adults with Down Syndrome, Autism or other developmental disabilities.

“We want to bring greater awareness to the fact that there are virtually no barriers to the game of hockey that can’t be overcome,” Nelson said. “Our goal as an organization is to facilitate the connections with potential players, coaches and volunteers to these programs.”

West Michigan Special Hockey Association
The West Michigan Special Hockey Association provides opportunities for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.

Kicking off the evening will be a ceremonial puck drop by Tim Kane, the captain of the U.S. Blind Hockey Team and prime mover of the Griffins’ Try Blind Hockey event on Sunday, Jan. 26 at Griff’s IceHouse at Belknap Park, located at 30 Coldbrook NE in Grand Rapids.

Visually impaired persons of all ages from across Michigan and beyond are invited to try blind hockey for free at the inaugural event hosted by the Griffins Youth Foundation and the Griffins.

All equipment will be provided, and on-ice guides – including Griffins coaches and former players – will be present to assist participants. Online registration by Dec. 16, 2019 is encouraged, although registrations will be accepted until the event is full. Information and registration are available at griffinshockey.com/tryblindhockey.

Blind hockey is the same exhilarating, fast-paced sport as ice hockey with only one main difference – all of the players are legally blind. The sport features a puck that makes noise and is much larger and heavier than a traditional puck.

Kane, an athletic trainer from Grandville, Mich., who is legally blind due to a juvenile degenerative condition, said blind hockey is relatively new to the U.S., although the sport has been enjoyed in Canada in various forms for nearly 50 years.

In Game
Grandville's Tim Kane is captain of the U.S. Blind Hockey Team.

He was unfamiliar with the potential for visually impaired persons to play hockey until his mom emailed him during the last Winter Olympics. Excited by the possibility, he got the blessing of his wife to audition for the national team – the couple’s son was only six months old at the time – and Kane not only earned a spot but eventually became captain of the sightless squad.

“Sports did so much for me growing up, whether it was building confidence or learning to deal with the adversity you face when you lose your vision at 15,” Kane said. “It was exciting to learn there was an opportunity to play the sport I loved so much when I was younger.”

Blind hockey is the newest and one of the fasted growing disabled disciplines – the first American to play the sport took part in a Canadian blind hockey tournament in 2013. Today there are programs in about a dozen cities across the country, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

“As much as the sport of hockey is loved in Michigan, we want to get a program growing here,” Kane said. “Our goal is to make blind hockey as successful here as it is in other places. We want people to see that hockey really is for everyone.”

Kane said the puck, which is roughly three times the size of a standard puck, is hollow metal and filled with ball bearings. “It rattles when it goes around the ice, so players with little or no vision have the ability to track its movement on the ice,” he said.

Goaltenders typically have less than one percent vision and must wear a blindfold. Considering the size and weight of the puck, they truly are fearless. Forwards generally have greater sight while defenders have less.

Blind hockey also features a net that is one foot shorter (6-by-3 rather than 6-by-4). “One of the reasons is to encourage shooters to keep their shots down, the other is to give goalies a little more advantage,” he said.

IMG 2951
10-year-old Tryson Smallegan plays in the Griffins Youth Foundation.

The action is fast-paced, like traditional hockey. “Every game has its challenges and players learn to adapt,” said Kane, who is passionate about the possibilities of growing the sport.

“The game has come a long way from the time when people were playing with tin cans filled with nuts and bolts up in Canada,” he said. “In the U.S., it’s a very young sport and definitely has room to grow.”

Kane said the current U.S. Blind Hockey Team roster features 14 skaters and two goalies, ranging in age from 15 to the mid-60s. He is hopeful that the Jan. 25-26 events will attract more attention to the sport.

“Learn to skate programs are always enjoyable, so imagine now a kid playing a sport that he or she never thought would be possible,” Kane said. “It’s a lot of fun to see people get out on the ice for the first time.”

Kane is thankful that more and more groups are providing options for people to enjoy hockey.

“It’s exciting that organizations are creating these opportunities for people with impairments,” Kane said. “It’s especially exciting for people like myself who enjoyed the game when they were younger and then seemingly lost the ability to play.

“It’s incredibly cool to have the chance to compete again.”

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