The Vancouver Eclipse visually impaired hockey team has a new home at Hillcrest Community Centre.
The building that hosted the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic curling competitions now houses Vancouver’s only visually impaired hockey team.
“We like the size of it now,” said Graham Foxcroft, a visually impaired player. “It’s an actual hockey-size rink and it’s very nice.”
The team played at Riley Park rink for 15 years. They moved, along with the centre’s other programs, to Hillcrest when the old rink closed.
Hillcrest rink has an NHL-sized ice surface and the building is mostly concrete construction trimmed with smooth honey coloured wood. Riley Park rink was mostly wood construction and was smaller than regulation-sized ice.
“The echoes are different,” said Gary Steeves, co-founder of and goalie for the Eclipse. “The first week we played [at Hillcrest] it was really weird because when people talked at the other end they had this delayed echo … You just have to get used to the sound.”
Sound is key to visually impaired and blind players. They rely on the noise made by specialized pucks to track the play.
“When a puck comes off a stick, the impact sound of it really gives a lot of information about direction and speed,” said Steeves. “How you react to it, I don’t know. Honestly, it’s instinctual.”
The rules of the game have been modified to accommodate the needs of visually impaired players. For example, goals cannot be scored in the upper half of the net because goalies (all of whom must be visually impaired or blind) cannot hear the puck when it is in the air.
Communication is also crucial to blind hockey. Each team has a few sighted players who keep the game flowing — they control the play and describe what is happening on the ice.
Being part of the team
The Eclipse started off the ice in 1995 when Steeves and Rob Commozzi got together and formed the team. Vancouver had nothing like it at the time.
“Sport does a lot of things for a lot of people, but I think it really does more for the visually impaired and other disabilities. It allows them to be part of something that probably a lot of their life they weren’t part of,” said Brian Cowie, a visually impaired player.
“When a little kid can’t see very well, he can’t play on the baseball team, he can’t play on the football team, he can’t play on the soccer team. But this allows them to be part of a team,” said Cowie.
The team currently has eight visually impaired and blind players and about six sighted players. They divide into two teams and play pick-up against each other every Friday.
Last season, the Eclipse played a three game tournament at Défi Sportif, an annual multisport event held in Montreal for athletes with disabilities.
“For the first time ever there were blind hockey players from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal all playing together on the same team,” said Steeves. “That’s never been done before.”
Eclipse members hope to attend the tournament again this year.
Involving more people
“The constant challenge is always to get new visually impaired guys to come out,” said Patrick Sheridan, a long-time sighted team member. “Especially [for] somebody who’s been visually impaired all their life and who has never played hockey, the idea of coming out on the ice and trying to play a game which is totally foreign [to them], I imagine, is pretty intimidating.”
The Eclipse want more people to get involved in blind hockey through tournaments like Défi Sportif and through the work Courage Canada is doing to develop a national blind hockey league with a standard puck and rules.
“Sports is a really good vehicle for improving people’s self-esteem and giving them confidence. And if they get confidence in whatever sport or activity they’re doing, then they can transfer that out into their normal lives,” said Steeves.
“I enjoy playing and I enjoy the fact that I’m helping the visually impaired guys,” said Sheridan. “Although a lot of these guys can play hockey a whole lot better than me, so I’m not sure who’s helping who!”
“It’s just coming every Friday and playing hockey,” said Foxcoft. “Just get out there and do it. … Don’t be afraid.”