It wasn’t on a hockey rink, but a golf course, that Mark DeMontis first noticed something was wrong with his vision. It was the summer before his senior year of high school and DeMontis and his father were out on the course during a family vacation in Ontario’s cottage country.
“All of a sudden I was realizing that I was having trouble seeing the flag at a distance,” recalls DeMontis, the 26-year-old founder of Courage Canada, a charity that will be hosting an annual hockey tournament in Toronto on Friday. “My dad kind of just said, ‘Let’s get your eyes tested, kid. You’ve got a big hockey season coming up.’
He was already signed with a triple-A team, was set to play on his high-school varsity team, and was dreaming of playing in the NHL. An eye exam led to a referral to see an optometrist, who delivered the news: DeMontis was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare disease that leads to gradual vision loss. He thought he would never play hockey again.
After a bout with depression in university, DeMontis’s love of the game – and his desire to make it accessible to kids who are blind or have partial vision – led him to start Courage Canada in 2008. Since then, the organization has introduced several new rules and standardized a special puck in order to make it easier for more to play the game.
The puck is larger than a regulation NHL puck – 5.5 inches in diameter instead of three inches – and has ball bearings whirring around inside so that players can locate it by sound. The tops of the nets are blocked off so that goals can only be scored in the bottom three feet.
Why not allow players to fire shots at the top shelf? “The goalies are the lowest-vision players on the ice, totally blind generally. Sometimes [they have] some residual vision,” says Matt Morrow, a former participation director for the Canadian Blind Sports Association who is now Courage Canada’s executive director. “So it’s really unfair for them if the puck can be scored in the top corner.”
And, among Courage Canada’s innovations to the rules, players must make at least one pass to a teammate after crossing the red line at centre ice. That not only slows down the offence, giving more players a chance to get involved in the play, it also gives goalies more opportunity to locate the puck.
Sports, DeMontis says, can have a huge impact on anyone’s physical and mental well-being, but they can be especially beneficial to those who are blind or partially sighted.
“If you exercise and you’re active, you’re going to be more confident, you’re going to build your self-esteem,” he says.
Jane Blaine, chief executive officer of the Canadian Blind Sports Association, says sports participation and physical activity have multiple benefits – social, physical, psychological and physiological – that the association discusses with adults and parents of children who are blind.
It’s also worth stating the obvious: Sports are fun.
All of which explains the popularity of Courage Canada’s annual tournament. The first, held last year, attracted 45 players from across the country. This year’s event will have more than 65, DeMontis says.
It’s a remarkable achievement considering the state of blind hockey before the creation of Courage Canada. There were only 3-1/2teams in the country, all using different rules and different pucks. None of the teams were talking to each other.
Players in this year’s tournament range in age from 16 to 80. All of them have less than 10-per-cent vision, making them legally blind. Each will be drafted to teams for the tournament, including Team Ontario, Team Quebec, Team Pacific, Team West and so on, DeMontis says.
Courage Canada’s long-term goal is to get blind hockey in the Paralympic Games, says DeMontis, who likes to dream big. He Rollerbladed from Toronto to Vancouver in 2009 and then from Halifax to Toronto in 2011, both times to raise awareness for Courage Canada. He now hosts a national sports show on Accessible Media Inc., Courage Canada’s main partner.
Establishing blind hockey in the Paralympic Games is likely many years off, DeMontis says, because too few countries are able to ice teams.
While he pursues that dream and a career in broadcasting, DeMontis says it’s events like the national tournament that remind him of what inspired him in the first place. “We have some players that it’s been their dream to, let alone represent and play for a medal, but to literally just be on a team, to get a jersey. This is why we started this,” he says.