The sound of the puck is the first thing a spectator notices about a hockey game involving blind and partially sighted players. Made of thin steel and filled with ball bearings, the larger adapted puck jingles like reindeer bells.
It’s music to the ears of players like Gary Steeves, who’s been involved in the game since age 12.
On a recent Sunday morning at North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex, Steeves was in net again as a goaltender with Vancouver Eclipse, comprised of blind and visually impaired athletes. It’s the home rink for members of the team, which has been active for decades and always aims to recruit additional players.
“The program’s been going pretty strong for the past 10 or 15 years,” Steeves said. “My dad got involved in starting a program in Calgary, I played a little bit in Toronto, too, then when I came to Vancouver in 1993, ‘94, we got a program going here. It’s kind of growing nicely lately.”
Eclipse in Surrey: Blind hockey players welcome others to shoot, pass and stop a jingling puck.
A long-established blind hockey program finds a home at North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex.
— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) January 4, 2023
As a builder of the game, Steeves was named a member of the Canadian Blind Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019.
A Fleetwood-area resident, Ali spent months writing the goaltending section of the manual, after coaching blind hockey players since 2015 and learning more about their game.
“That first tournament I saw, it was my introduction to blind hockey at that level,” Ali recalled. “I took stats and notes about what kind of moves they were doing. The wraparound used to be a really big move that they’d do all the time to score goals, because the goalies weren’t moving laterally. We began to help them adapt, how to stop more pucks.”
Day 1 of filming the Coaching Resource Manual is in the books.
The group was on the ice for over 3 hours filming the goalie section of the manual. pic.twitter.com/0Hi2bGn3tS
— CanadianBlindHockey (@CDNBlindHockey) December 19, 2022
In blind hockey, goaltenders are blindfolded. Nets are shorter in height, and the ref blows a whistle to indicate a pass.
“Players can’t shoot from anywhere on the ice and score, they have to gain the offensive zone and make at least one pass,” Ali explained. “The whistle indicates to the goalie that a shot is coming, now they’ve made a pass and they can shoot anytime. It’s go time, and the goalie has to track everything.”
Some of the Eclipse players don’t know what the game of hockey looks like, because they’ve never seen it, while others watched the game and played it, then lost their sight.
“So explaining some of the techniques, it’s like, ‘OK, goalie, go into the butterfly.’ Well, what are you talking about, right?” Ali said. “They have no comprehension of it, so it’s about showing them and get their permission to kind of mold their bodies into those positions, so they can feel the position they should be in. Then it’s just about repetition, just like any goalie.”
Fresh off the ice in North Surrey, Steeves said Ali’s guidance has been valuable.
“Joey has been amazing,” Steeves raved. “With him, I went from being an OK goalie to making the national team in 2018, and he’s just taken my kind of instincts and gave them some function and form, and really helped my game.
“I was away for a couple of years with some health issues, then COVID hit,” Steeves continued. “So this weekend tournament (Western Regional Blind Hockey Tournament in Calgary in November) is my first one back in about four or five years. It’s exciting, and I’m hoping to go there and show everyone that I’m back.”
New to the Eclipse team is Lucas Desrochers, 20, who lives in Panorama Ridge area and played with Surrey Minor Hockey teams growing up.
“This is my first year, and I actually lost my eyesight last year,” Desrochers said. “I have a rare eye condition, so I had one of the guys from vision-loss rehab come over to help me learn how to do stuff on my phone and whatnot. He found out that I skated and played hockey, and told me about the Eclipse.
“Honestly,” he added, “this brought me out of my house more, because before that, you’re in a dark depression when you lose your sight. Having these guys is great, just being around the guys on the ice. It’s competitive but it’s also just a great time playing. We hang out and have fun.”
Graham Foxcroft, chair of the Eclipse program, plays the game and also helps recruit new players.
“We could use the help of a volunteer coach sometimes, because Joey’s a busy man with other teams he works with,” Foxcroft said. “We’d love to find someone who could show us some drills and teach us some things on the ice.”