Blind Hockey continues to grow, anchored locally at Center Ice of DuPage
By Ross Forman
All roads lead to Pittsburgh for the U.S. Blind Hockey Team, to battle its counterparts from Canada, Oct. 12-14, hosted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mike Svac, of suburban Chicago, is the team’s general manager and head coach, and the U.S. roster features three players from the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team: Anthony Chesrow (Carol Stream), Luke Miller (Elmhurst) and Matthew Miller (Elmhurst).
“The U.S. Team is new and excited about the opportunity to represent the United States,” Svac said. “The Canadian team (is) extremely strong in general and they have a well-established blind hockey community that has been playing the game since the early-1980s. The Canada Team is extremely talented and has many more years of experience playing competitive games.”
This past January, USA Hockey formalized the U.S. Blind Hockey Team.
There are more than 120 players throughout the U.S. who participate in blind hockey, and the sport continues to grow. In 2016, Chicago hosted a Blind Hockey Summit, and 35 players participated. In 2017, the Summit was held in Pittsburgh and attendance grew to 48 players. This past April, during the 14th annual Disabled Hockey Festival, held in the Chicago area, 88 players with visual impairments participated in the festival that hosted more than 1,800 hockey players with disabilities.
This past January, the top 30 U.S. players with visual impairments were identified. In April, during the disabled festival, the roster was trimmed to 23 players, all of whom were invited to a blind hockey development camp in Utica, N.Y., for final selection. The five-day camp, held in mid-July, had players participate in both on and off ice activities, including several games where local attendance was more than 500 spectators.
The U.S. Team roster has been trimmed to 18, and the final roster will be announced in early-August once vision classifications are certified.
“It’s exciting to see three players from the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team represent the United States,” Svac said. “All three players selected are outstanding leaders on and off the ice, and are always there to help their teammates. All three are leaders and truly care about their teammates. We have two players who are brothers and both these young men are outstanding in representing their family in addition to our hockey program. Matthew is a student at Michigan State University. He is an athlete with limited vision and uses a walking stick. He is at many Michigan State hockey games sitting in the front row leading the student cheers. His leadership has spread through the campus as he is recognized as a hockey player for the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey team. Through his actions, he is getting the word out and others are now contacting our team about wanting to play blind hockey.
“Anthony is one of our on-ice leaders and has playing experience at a very high competitive level. As a college student, he is able to balance life on campus and still make time to participate every week. He provides additional on-ice teaching for our less skilled players throughout the week.
“Luke also is a leader. He was given the first player award for his leadership on and off the ice in 2015. He is always looking after his teammates and is passionate about learning how to be a better player.”
The U.S. Team has players from California, Colorado, Washington, New York, Indiana, Michigan, Maine and Washington D.C. Four assistant coaches, including a goalie coach and skating coach, were selected.
Svac also is the hockey director and head coach for the Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team. A Naperville resident, Svac is the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Representative for the Central District.
“In 2007, my son David was asked to join the Tomahawks (special hockey team) at Center Ice of DuPage as a junior coach,” Svac said. “He was playing for Neuqua Valley High School (at the time). I attended the first session with him and started to take photos of the team. Tomahawk coaches Steve Drews and Art Swanson heard that I was a hockey coach and invited me to join the coaching staff.
“In 2012, I introduced the USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM) to the club and we started a formalized skill development program for all special needs hockey players. In 2014-2015 the Chicago Blackhawks asked the Tomahawks to adopt the Chicago Blackhawks name and logo … and the rest was history.”
In November 2014, he was asked to lead the then-new Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Program. Within two months they scrambled to secure ice, identify 12 coaches to skate with 16 players with visual impairments. “It was stressful during the planning, but it all came together,” Svac said. “On Jan. 1, 2015, our only focus was player safety and ensuring that we could accommodate enough players based on available coaches and volunteers. What surprised me was that these athletes jumped on the ice and were skating and with their ability to utilize their hearing to adjust for their vision impairments. I am pleased to report that no one crashed into the boards or sustained any injuries.”
Svac added, “The challenge for me as a coach is learning something new. How do you teach a hockey player who maybe has never skated, never played hockey, and this person has limited vision or is completely blind? In typical hockey we demonstrate skills and play by having the hockey player watch with their eyes while listening to the instruction. In this situation, there is no visualization for the player and the coach must be able to break it down and describe what is expected and what is desired by only words, using touch and creating a sense of a way to feel what is being taught. Having this experience has challenged me in new and different ways, and the excitement is to tell the story to others about athletes with limited or no vision who play the game of hockey.
“My personal goal is to help the game grow and by reaching out to others in the community who may have a friend, family member or co-worker who is blind and ask them to just take a moment and come to the rink and try hockey. USA Hockey has successfully embraced the concept that ‘hockey is for everybody’ and it is truly inclusive of connecting anyone to the game. Our players include males and females, ranging in age from 5 to 60. Some players played competitive hockey growing up until they experienced vision impairments and others were born completely blind and never experienced hockey or even put a pair of hockey skates until now.”
Understanding Blind Hockey
Blind Hockey has a few different rules so that the level of competition is balanced. Here’s a look at a few differences:
• The goals are one foot shorter than a standard net. The reason is, to help the goalies who are completely blind. “With no vision it is much more difficult to stop a puck that leaves the ice, (especially since) with the current puck design, the puck is silent when it becomes airborne,” Svac said.
• To allow the goalie an opportunity to be in a defensive position and ready for a shot to take place, an offensive player must make one complete pass when the puck enters the offensive zone. “When the pass is made, the referee will activate an audible buzzer for five seconds. This communicates to all players on the ice that a shot can be taken and for safety allow the goalie to be prepared for a shot to take place,” Svac said.
• Players wear different colored helmets, based on their vision level. A player with no vision is classified as B1 and wears a red helmet. A player with less than 5 percent vision is a B2 and wears a white helmet. A player with less than 10 percent vision is a B3 and wears a black helmet. At any given time, the total allowed per team on the ice at one time is 13. “So, as a coach, we can position four B3 players and one B1 player (to equal) 13, (or) three B3 Players and two B2 Players (to equal) 13, etc.,” Svac said. “The colored helmets allow the referees to confirm compliance with the rules. A team that has more than 13 on the ice during play results in a two-minute penalty.
• The puck for competitive competition is metal and hallow with eight ball bearings inside. As the puck moves, the players can hear the puck. When the puck stops moving, the sound stops. “We also are doing research on Bluetooth helmet speakers, like (used by) the NFL, where a coach could communicate to the player who is completely blind as to where they are on the ice and where they are positioned in relationship to the puck and who has possession of the puck. This will allow the player with less or no vision to play a more active part in the game then staying near the defensive goal protecting their own net.”
Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team
The Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team has players ranging in age from 7 to 38, with 26 players on the roster, and 20 active coaches. The program is broken down into three groups, based on skill level.
“We utilize ADM concepts for the (top two player divisions) and there is one coach to one player (for beginners),” Svac said. “The team plays from September through April at Center Ice of DuPage. We scrimmage local teams throughout the season. Players have an opportunity to play competitive games against other vision-impaired players at the annual summit, several tournaments in Canada, local weekend events throughout the country, and at the annual disabled hockey festival in April.
“The Chicago Blackhawks Blind Hockey Team is still developing, and we are now training our first goalie. Two of our players were recipients of the BMO Harris Hockey Player award for their leadership. One of our players competed in the summer Paralympics.”
Svac said the team’s focus this season will be to continue skill development. “Each person who participates on our team is treated like a hockey player and expected to perform like a hockey player. There is no disability when they step onto the ice,” Svac said. “Our expectations are high and our focus as coaches is to push the players to be better hockey players on the ice and leaders in the community.”
Svac said the team wants to add at least five new players each year, if possible.
“We also want to expand to other rinks throughout the area, so that more players have access to our disabled hockey programs,” he said. “Representing the Blackhawks organization in a positive way will always be No. 1 because without their support and trust, our program would not exist.”
U.S Blind Hockey Team
Svac said the team dynamics for the U.S. squad is outstanding and the support they provide each other on the ice really stands out. “We have a few players who can play both offense and defense, which gives us many opportunities to change up our strategy. Coming out of the camp (in late-July) illustrated how strong our special teams are when defending the net and moving the puck for scoring opportunities. We have speed, but lack physical size. Our goaltenders will be challenged hard by the Canadians and being 100 percent blind and expected to stop a flying metal puck that is twice the size and weight of a regulation NHL puck is a challenge in itself.”
Players for the U.S. Team were selected based on vision level and playing skills. The youngest on the team is 17 and the oldest is a 59 year-old goalie.
“We have players who have played very high competitive hockey through juniors before they lost their vision, and others who were introduced to hockey well after they experienced vision impairments,” Svac said.
On The Bench With … Coach Svac
Svac has been coaching since 1990 and has learned a lot from many different coaches and mentors. But, he said, “I don’t think I have learned as much about myself and the potential impact I could have if it was not for the players that have coached me in the disabled hockey programs,” he said. “I am very appreciative to have had this opportunity to be included with Disabled Hockey.”
Memories are plentiful for Svac.
For instance, a 7 year-old girl who was born with no vision, but tremendous courage brought a lasting memory, he said. She came to her first practice session ready to go. After the one-hour practice her final words as she left ice were, “Hey, Coach Mike, will you be at practice next week?”
Svac said, yes.
She replied, “Good, because I want you to teach me how to play hockey.”
“That is when I realized how fortunate I was that someone had the trust in me to be part of Blind Hockey.”
A few weeks later, one of the players said goodbye after practice at 5:30 p.m. “My closing words were to have a safe trip home and let me know that you made it,” Svac said.
About 8:45 p.m., Svac received a text acknowledging his safe arrival.
“The following week I inquired about his text to understand why it took him so long to return home only to learn that he starts his journey at 8 a.m., to catch two trains and one bus so that he can arrive three hours before practice and then to return home by two trains and one bus. What is amazing is, he does this alone, carrying his hockey bag, backpack, hockey stick and walking stick … yes, he is completely blind.
“The sacrifice he makes to attend a 90-minute practice and to be there for his teammates is amazing and this is one of many reasons why he was selected as captain for the Chicago team.”
Svac also recalls a fond lifelong memory from the recent U.S. Blind Camp, where 18 players each wanted the chance to represent the United States against Canada in October.
“On the last evening our host scheduled a game against a mix of top players who played locally at the college, players associated with the NHL, etc.,” Svac said. “A crowd of over 500 fans was in attendance as the players’ names and hometowns were announced while standing on the blue line; and then the national anthem played and the crowd started to sing.
“You could feel the energy in the rink starting to build and then the team gathered for one last chant before the faceoff. At that moment when their voices were heard with one last ‘USA’ (cheer), the crowd was on their feet chanting. It was that moment when the players finally realized how big this opportunity really is and that they connected with a small community in upstate New York in only a few days. It was a cool experience.”
Svac added, “We are very fortunate to have the full support of the Chicago Blackhawks and the oversight from USA Hockey. What the Blackhawks do for disabled hockey and youth hockey is, by far, the best throughout the country. They are leaders and not followers. But as it all starts there to build the foundation, locally we have been able to grow disabled hockey in Illinois because of the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI) and the ongoing support from the Illinois Hockey Officials Association (IHOA). This team with the thousands of volunteers makes it all happen for these athletes with disabilities.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.