PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — There are plenty of stories of athletes overcoming adversity, but a new hockey league in Philadelphia is harnessing adversity and turning it into an opportunity.
Philadelphia Blind Hockey helps kids and adults who are blind or visually impaired learn to play.
With a few adaptations, people with visual impairments can participate in a lot of athletic activities. One man, Richard, has tried wall climbing, scuba diving, tandem biking, golf, and now, ice hockey.
“I heard the puck before, I was like, ‘I could find that,’” he said at his first hockey practice. “So I thought I'd give it a try.”
The puck in blind hockey makes a distinct sound. It’s metal and has ball bearings inside, so players can hear it sliding across the ice.
Richard was the only adult at this practice. Most of the players are students at the Overbrook School for the Blind, where Philadelphia Blind Hockey’s founder and Executive Director, Kelsey McGuire, works during the week.
“We're hoping to grow the game so we have two teams…an adult team and a kid team,” McGuire said.
Many cities across the U.S. and Canada have blind hockey teams, but McGuire brought it to Philadelphia in 2019, beginning with several “try hockey” events in partnership with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We had six of them over at the Flyers’ Training Center in Voorhees,” McGuire said, “and then from there it just spiraled. And now we’re here, we have eight players, and we have more players coming and trying each different week.”
2022-2023 was Philadelphia Blind Hockey’s first regular season, with practices every other Sunday at Laura Sims Skate House in Cobbs Creek Park.
The program is free for players, except for their USA Hockey fee. They’ve partnered with Leveling the Playing Field to provide all the equipment at no cost.
The team also partners with the Flyers Cup tournament to get players from the participating high schools to volunteer at blind hockey practices. They help teach Philadelphia Blind Hockey players how to skate, pass the puck, and shoot.
Some new players will use a chair or support to stay steady on the ice. Others have some unique ways of playing around — like 5-year-old Benjamin.
“He loves to lay on the ice and get spun around a little bit,” Ben’s mom, Jacquelyn, explained. “So that's kind of his motivation. He skates a little and then he gets a little spin on the ice with his body.”
Benjamin has cortical visual impairment, which means his brain has trouble processing images. He especially struggles with complex visual environments like large crowds, so his parents never thought sports would be an option.
“We felt like it would just be traumatic and bring anxiety,” Jacquelyn said. “We were all nervous to start, but Miss Kelsey was great.”
Ben has been to about six practices, and Jacquelyn can see him growing and getting more comfortable on the ice each week.
“Knowing that you're going into a situation that everybody had different needs,” Jacquelyn said, “it was that non-competitive and everybody just come at your own pace and try your best… I felt like it was a great opportunity for Ben to experience something awesome without that added pressure, to just go out there and be who he is and enjoy it.”
Philadelphia Blind Hockey is wrapping up their season this month. They’ll be hosting more “try hockey” events and opening up registration for the fall soon. You can get more information on how to sign up or volunteer on their website or social media pages, @phlblindhockey.
Hear what the puck and blind hockey practice sound like on KYW’s original podcast, The Jawncast, in the player below or wherever you listen to podcasts.