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The Globe and Mail

Seeing isn't believing for blind hockey reporter

Mike Davies sits in the press box, wondering what just happened.

The Peterborough Examiner's hockey reporter knows the hometown Petes have scored, but not how. The 44-year-old heard the cheering and he saw the players celebrate, but he didn't see it the same way as the other 2,575 people jammed into the Memorial Centre did – he's legally blind.

In a job that requires insight, Davies can no longer count on his eyes.

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"It's hard to explain to someone," he says. "It's like tunnel vision, which people kind of understand. But it's also like it's a puzzle and there are pieces missing."

A rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa has been stealing his vision for decades, but Davies has quietly gone on with his life, taking help where he needs it and adapting his routine to ensure his stories make it into the next day's paper.

Some of the fixes are easy, such as using a large font on his Macbook. Others take more forethought, such as doing player interviews in the hallway where it's easier to manoeuvre and getting a ride home from team trainer Brian Miller rather than relying on his wife.

"Usually by the time he's done the towels, I'm done my story," he says. "You find ways to adapt. It's like you always hear people saying they could do their jobs with a blindfold on. I guess I can do this with a blindfold too."

The fact that he continues to work at all puts him in the exceptional minority. Statistics Canada estimates that only 35 per cent of working-age adults with blindness or partial sight are employed, and half of them earn less than $20,000 a year.

On this night, Davies twists in his seat as he looks toward the press box television to watch the Petes score on the visiting Barrie Colts. He's increasingly relied on it over the years, using it to fill in the gaps. The team's statisticians sit with him, and they provide a running commentary that helps him keep track of what just happened on the ice.

"I don't miss too much," Davies says. "And what I do miss, I'm able to fill in later. Nobody wants straight news stories any more anyway, the profession has been moving toward stories with more context. I can do that without seeing every little thing on the ice. We tend to focus on a bigger story, a human-interest angle or more about a player who had a big night."

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Anyone reading the next day's paper wouldn't know Davies's back story. And for years, he was content to leave it that way. But last month in a front-page column, he laid out his problems to his readers. He grappled with what he considered to be a confession for weeks before writing his piece, worrying about the questions readers may ask. How can a reporter write about a game he can't see?

"There was some worry about how that would be received," he says, as he sits in the press box at the Memorial Centre. "But I wanted people to understand that when I walk by them without saying hello, I'm not being rude. Most people don't realize I can't see all that well."

That wasn't his only concern. The Examiner, like the majority of mid-sized newspapers across the country hammered by decreasing advertising revenue, has been shedding staff. He wondered whether broadcasting his challenges could be a dodgy career move, given the uncertainty in the industry.

"It was a concern, but in the end I think they know what I can do and I'll be judged on my work," says Davies, who recently took over as the paper's sports director after its sports editor was laid off. He now guides the paper's day-to-day sports coverage.

Davies started covering sports for his hometown paper 17 years ago, taking a job at the paper as he came out of university. He's only missed one game in that time, and is one of only four OHL beat reporters who travels with his team.

When he started covering hockey, his vision was fine. The condition affects everyone differently, and he held out hope that it would be easy on him. But his vision has deteriorated markedly since those early days, and he now relies on his two decades of experience to get him around familiar arenas across the province.

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His bosses over the years have done what they can to help him, although for much of the past decade his vision was still a closely guarded topic. Now-retired managing editor Ed Arnold let Davies work from home, which nobody from the paper had ever done. He solved transportation problems by keeping Davies in taxi chits.

"I was never concerned about him doing the job," Arnold says. "He breaks more stories than anyone, and nobody can take advantage of him. You can only take advantage of stupid people and he's certainly not one of them. But we certainly tried not to make his vision a big deal – internally we kept it between himself and I because it wasn't anybody else's business."

The team – among the most storied junior hockey franchises in the world with alumni including Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman, Eric Staal, Chris Pronger and Tie Domi – also goes out of its way to make sure he's safe and given what he needs to do his job.

"Our guys do what they can," says Petes coach Mike Pelino. "He has a tough time getting around sometimes. And you want to make sure he knows where the pillars are, or if doors are opened or closed. But look, he certainly doesn't let this so-called challenge affect his work. You'd never know it to read his stuff."

Davies appreciates the help, but it also reminds him of his limits. He's covered the OHL for most of his career and knows the buildings in and out. He once dreamed of covering the NHL, but has come to terms with staying in familiar surroundings. He never thought he'd be running the paper's sports section (and still doing day-to-day reporting) but knows that he needs to adapt in a changing media world.

"I was a little uncertain at first," he says, as he updates a live game file that is being posted on the Examiner's website. "But you need to keep your options open."

His NHL ambitions aren't the only things he's given up. A few years ago he had to quit his beer league hockey team, because he didn't "want to be that guy who couldn't take a pass." And although he plays basketball and soccer with his daughter – he calls them the "big ball sports" – it bothers him that she whips him every time they play.

"I don't have a lot of regrets and I don't feel like a victim," he says. "But I just wish I could beat her sometimes, you know? I want her to know that I used to be pretty good at that stuff, which maybe is a little hard for her to believe."

But his moment of reflection is short-lived, as Petes statistician Dale Lingard yells across the press box to make sure Davies is paying attention. They both turn toward the television to see whether a Petes player jumped the boards to pick a fight. Spectators crane their necks too, asking Davies why the player was tossed out of the game.

"I don't know," he says, smiling. "I'm going to have to take a closer look."

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