Blind vets take to the ice in Saranac Lake
SARANAC LAKE — Nine months ago, military veteran Lawrence Harrison had never been on the ice in his life. But on the day after Thanksgiving, he was in the locker room at the Saranac Lake Civic Center, putting on elbow pads and shin guards, a red jersey and a helmet.
The Washington, D.C. resident was getting ready to play hockey with a half dozen other blind veterans, a few volunteers and several visually impaired kids.
“We can do this,” said Harrison. “It’s not the end of the world if you lose your sight. You put your mind to doing it, and you can do it.”
Although blind hockey has been played in Canada for 40 years, it’s new to the United States. In 2016 the Blinded Veterans Association, based in Washington, D.C., decided to sponsor blind veterans hockey. They called up former hockey player and veteran Bruce Porter, who turned out to be just the guy.
“I’d been working with adaptive hockey for a decade, but with people with autism,” said Porter. “I’m a veteran, and I used to play hockey, so what do you know? It fit.”
“Bruce called me up and asked me if I wanted to play,” said Jim Sadecki, whose son, Carson, is also suited up for the game. “The following weekend, we went to the BVA in DC. I live in Connecticut, so we practiced with the Hartford Braillers. This team is a spinoff of that.
“The biggest challenge is the skating aspect,” said Sadecki. “We’re all visually impaired, so we understand each other. I lost my sight 13 years ago so it’s been like being that kid that gets picked last on the bench. For me, here we’re all equal. We get the camaraderie back.”
Blind sports classify visual impairment from B1, which is completely blind, to B3. Sadecki is a B1. Teammate Keith Haley is a B3.
“You want those to be your forwards,” said Haley of the B3s. “They’re the ones who have to move the puck up and down the ice.”
The puck for blind hockey makes clicking noises as it slides across the ice, which helps players find it — at least, until it stops.
Goalies, on the other hand, have to be completely blind.
“If they do have vision, they’ll put a blindfold on,” said Sadecki. “That makes it fair. I make a big wall, so I play the defense.”
The guys suit up, helping each other occasionally. “Is this the back?” Sadecki asks, holding up his jersey before he puts it on.
Nick Silver digs through his bag, running his hand over his skates again. His ten-year-old son packed his bag, and the skates are different sizes.
“He said they look the same, but they don’t look the same, do they?” One skate has silver side panels, and the other one dark gray, with a lime-green button that inflates the ankle.
“These are the challenges of being blind,” said Silver. “Stuff like this happens. Guys show up in the wrong uniforms, and it’s not like you can just get it FedExed. When you’re blind, you just wing it. It stays interesting.”
While one of the volunteers goes to find Silver skates, he said, “The volunteers make it so we can do this. It’s amazing. You know, these people gave up part of their Thanksgiving for us.”
Silver, a licensed massage therapist, is going back to school to study chiropractic this January. “Body awareness is my thing,” he said. “In blind sports you use a lot of acoustics… you have to go above and beyond, greater than someone who can orient themselves visually.”
“There’s not too many sports that can’t be adapted for blind people,” said Silver. He plays beep baseball, and he’s working on improving his running and cycling times to compete in duathlon. “There’s only ten visually impaired in duathlon in the world; I aim to be the 11th.”
Members of this group have flown or driven in from as far away as St. Louis. Because there are so few players, if you want to play blind hockey, be prepared to travel. But the good part of there being so few players is that pretty soon, everyone knows everybody else.
Today there are also a half-dozen youngsters out on the ice, too, practicing with the big guys. For the first half-hour, the players travel down the ice two at a time, passing the puck back and forth, and eventually into — or past — the goal.
“My mission is to grow the program,” says Porter. “We’ve got to think ten years ahead.”
In the meantime, the vets and the kids were having fun. Later Friday, the veterans and some of their volunteers were heading for the bobsled run to give that a try. Afterward, dinner, or shopping, or whatever they want to do. Right now, the program is small, but they’re all hoping it grows and more people get into blind hockey.
“We need more people like Bruce [Porter] in the world,” said Silver, “who encourage us to play sports. We don’t go out looking for sympathy. We’re just looking for an opportunity to be athletes.”