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Team USA Blind Hockey gives Alexandria Catholic a shot to play

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There were the familiar sounds of blades slashing through ice, sticks colliding, the curt whistle of the referee and shouts from the crowd, in this case, 3-year-old Ellie Mitchell calling out, “Go Daddy, Go Daddy!” Then there was a sound hockey fans would find less familiar — the insistent metallic rattle of an oversized puck as it slid across the rink.

The players practicing that morning at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington may have been skating on the same ice as the Washington Capitals, but they’re in a different league altogether. This is blind hockey.

Blind, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. Many of the legally blind skaters still have some vision, so players are ranked by how visually impaired they are, enabling opposing teams to be visually matched on the ice. The puck in blind hockey is larger and louder. The jerseys are brighter.

Teammates yell out code words to one another, audibly communicating where they and the puck are headed. The referee blows a special whistle when a pass is completed in the defensive zone to alert the goalie a shot could be coming. The net is a foot shorter than in the NHL — 3 feet instead of 4 — to incentivize keeping the puck where it’s easier to block.

Charlie Mitchell, a player for the Washington Blind Hockey Club, had never heard of blind hockey before a coworker mentioned it to him. “My first reaction, like a lot of people’s, was, ‘That sounds crazy, what in the world is blind hockey?’ ” he said. As Charlie slowly lost his vision, much of his life had become about adjusting to the things he could no longer do. Playing hockey, it turns out, was not one of those things.

Charlie, 31, had played hockey from before he could remember all the way through high school. Looking back, he realizes he started having problems with his vision as a teen. Seeing fast-moving objects, such as a baseball flying into the outfield or a golf ball landing in the fairway, became difficult.

One day in his early 20s, Charlie was playing racquetball with his wife, Katie. “I was just crushing him,” she said. When the ball came toward Charlie and he didn’t even flinch, Katie realized it was more than her own racquetball prowess — something was seriously wrong. They went to the hospital that night, and after several doctors’ visits over several weeks, Charlie finally was diagnosed.

“It was a shock. I went in by myself and they ran a whole battery of tests,” he said. “At the end (the doctor) said, ‘I think you have a degenerative retinal disease and you’re going to progressively lose your vision.’ I was not prepared for that at all. A million questions started popping up in my mind. I had just finished my first year of law school. Am I going to be able to still read? Will I be able to practice law? We had been married for a year, how is this going to affect our marriage? How am I going to raise children as a visually impaired person?”

It was difficult to adjust to his new reality, physically and emotionally. He had to stop driving. He began to use a white cane to navigate unfamiliar places. Reading became laborious, so he started using text-to-speech software. He and Katie learned they had to be extra organized at home so he could find his belongings.

But his faith, his wife and their community at Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria helped pull him through those dark years. “I think it would've been far harder to get to where we are now if we didn't have faith to fall back on, if we didn’t have the community at Blessed Sacrament to support us,” he said. “When you’re progressively losing your vision, there absolutely can be a lot of fear and anxiety and even despair and hopelessness, and I’ve certainly gone through periods of that. But there’s so many fruits that have come out of my vision loss. One of them is that it makes you realize you're not in control.

“I went to Notre Dame, I was very successful academically, I got into (George Washington) law school, I got a job at a prestigious law firm. It's easy to start to become prideful. This really snapped me out of that,” said Charlie. “I don't think there’s anything better to teach you patience and humility than losing your vision because you have to ask people for help.”

Since his diagnosis, he’s met incredible friends and mentors in the blind community, including his fellow hockey players. Both the people and the game itself have changed his perspective. “Before I started playing blind hockey, I was in the mindset of limiting myself. I would go into things with the assumption that I couldn’t do it,” he said. “Playing blind hockey, yes, we have some adaptations but it's not too different from normal, sighted hockey. It's still quite competitive and quite fast.”

In August, Charlie made the U.S.  blind hockey team. Recently, the team played a three-game series in Ottawa. “Canada pretty soundly beat us, which was kind of expected,” said Charlie. Canadians have played the sport for 40 years, but it’s been in the U.S. for less than a decade. The goal of the blind hockey community is to grow the sport by building teams in at least six countries to qualify for the Paralympics in 2026.

But until then, Katie, Ellie and 3-month-old Emma will spend Sunday mornings cheering Charlie close to home, bundled up inside as the sun rises over the Arlington rink. “(Blind hockey) takes him away,” said Katie. Losing his vision made Charlie more cautious and careful, she said. But back on the ice, he can fly. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020