Like many Canadians, Steve Vandermey fell in love with hockey at a young age, and pursued the sport at the competitive level right through his adult years.
It wasn't until he was in his mid-30s - when he developed complications with diabetes and lost 90 per cent of his vision within five years - that he had to hang up his skates.
Or so he thought.
After a chance meeting with a member of the B.C. Blind Sports and Recreation Association at a Canucks game, Vandermey heard about the Vancouver Eclipse, a recreational hockey team made up of blind and visually impaired players.
At first he was skeptical that anyone could play hockey without seeing the puck, but eventually he decided to give it a try and has been playing weekly ever since.
"It was great to be back on the ice," he said of his first hockey practice as a visually impaired player. "It's like riding a bike; you don't lose that skill. As soon as I stepped on the ice I knew exactly what it was like, but it was just getting around and trying to adapt to the blind game that was the toughest, because I was so used to seeing."
To the spectator, a blind hockey game is much the same as any other, except for one noticeable difference: the noise.
The puck is about double the normal size, and is made of hollow metal that contains ball bearings. When it's hit with a hockey stick, slammed into the boards or slides down the ice, it rattles loudly, which gives players an acoustic means of locating it at all times.
Also, some of the rules of the game are modified to avoid injuries.
All players must wear full face masks, and there are no slap shots, high sticking or body checks allowed; though inevitably there will be some body contact, Vandermey noted.
Sometimes players do accidentally run into the net or the boards or even other players, but for the most part, the game is quick and players position themselves as sighted players do, he said.
The Eclipse has about three sighted players on the regular roster who help with calling out positions or locating the puck if it stops, but only blind or visually impaired players are allowed to score a goal. As such, goals can only be scored in the bottom half of the net, for the safety of the goalie.
Vandermey played goalie throughout his competitive hockey days, and is now one of two goalies for the Eclipse.
Whereas he is considered visually impaired, the other goalie is considered blind, though he can perceive a small pinhole of light in each eye.
What many people do not realize is the vast majority of people who have a visual impairment are not totally blind, though they may be considered legally blind, Vandermey said.
There is a ranking in blind sports, which ranges from blindness to severe visual impairment.
B1 means totally blind, B2 means very low vision and B3 means partially sighted.
The Eclipse team is made up of players in all three categories.
Players come from all over the Lower Mainland - from as far away as Abbotsford - for the noon ice time every Friday, from September through March.
The team was formed about 15 years ago and, until this year, held practices in Vancouver, but found they had increasing challenges with getting ice time, Vandermey said.
In September the team moved to Moody Park Arena in New Westminster where management allows players to leave their equipment on site during the week and staff watch over players' guide dogs at the front desk while they're on the ice.
"We've been there ever since and it's worked out really, really well," said Vandermey. "It's an excellent rink."
The team's calendar is filling up for the coming year.
The non-profit B.C. Blind Sport and Recreation Association sponsors The Eclipse by helping with coordinating events and covering the cost of renting the rink each week, but the team is also planning to host some fundraisers of their own.
This Saturday, Dec. 22 from noon to 1 p.m., the public is invited to drop in to check out blind hockey and watch a demo game at Moody Park Arena at 701 Eighth Ave.
Admission is by donation, and everyone is welcome to join in for a free skate and get tickets for a raffle draw.
The Eclipse will also be playing a demo game on Jan. 15 during an intermission at an Abbotsford Heat AHL game as a fundraiser for next year's blind hockey tournament at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
Vandermey said his team is also working on lobbying the International Olympic Committee to get ice hockey on the list of Paralympic winter sports.
"They're watching what we're doing and, I think as Canadians, it's up to us to bring every kind of hockey to the global stage; so why not low-vision/blind hockey as well?"
For more information on the Vancouver Eclipse, visit www.vancouverecplise.ca.
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