Despite the exceptionally frigid air of winter 2015, my daughter Arden and I headed north to Toronto, then on to Image of Courage USA at Courage Canada Tournament 2015Niagara Falls, Ontario during winter break.  Heading north for a mid-winter escape was not the only thing out of my comfort zone on this epic journey.  After taking the bus to Burlington, VT, we checked in at Porter Airlines.  Despite my inability to read signs, I instructed Arden to follow me.  This is the airport I grew up near.  But I confused it with the equally small airport in Albany and we found ourselves in parts unknown on the second floor.  In retrospect, nothing could be simpler – turn right after check-in and the few Porter gates are less than 50 yards to the right on ground level.  But it’s only easy the second time.  How foolish I must have looked desperately looking around this tiny concourse for any visual confirmation that we were in the right spot to board the plane to Toronto.  After I relaxed, I could appreciate the beautiful large flakes of snow falling outside the large windows.

Landing on a spot of land on frozen Lake Ontario, it only took a bus, plane, ferry ride, and taxi to reach our first resort destination – a very nice Holiday Inn “Downtown Centre”. It is located barely 100 yards or so from the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens, now the Mattamy Athletic Centre of Ryerson University.  Shortly after arriving at the hotel, men and hockey bags took over the lobby.  It’s a big load when toting regular luggage, hockey sticks, and a white cane as well.  Some would become my teammates for the next 3 days of hockey in the 2015 Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament, the main purpose of this semi-arctic adventure.

Eighty people from all across Canada, five of us from the United States formed six teams.  Four games would determine Gold, Silver, Bronze medals, and a whole lot more.  Trying to squeeze in some last minute conditioning and skating time the week before, my muscles and body already felt out of whack from a hard fall on my home rink.   There would be four games in three days with and against these men that I was silently observing as they checked in.  What on earth did I get myself into!?

We all received matching Reebok track suits to identify ourselves as Courage Canada hockey players.  Players’ vision ranged from legally blind to totally blind.  The identifying outfits helped build connections and then friendships.  In the hotel elevator, the ice rink elevator and at Starbuck’s, there were whispers of – What team are you on?, What’s your name?, Where are you from?.  Because of poor face recognition, I didn’t always know if I had already met them but a few sentences would get us on the same page.  And they always understood why I didn’t recognize their faces, as we became familiar with each other’s voices.

Before the first game of the tournament, players, coaches, and volunteers gathered at the rink.  This day happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag, so a big red maple leaf and 2 red stripes, a representation of the flag were laid out on the ice.  2,000 lucky people became Canadian citizens that day on the Maple Leafed ice.  How cool is that?  And we felt the Canadian welcome as we gathered in the lounge overlooking the rink for our opening meeting.

Mark DeMontis, the president and founder of Courage Canada gave a rousing pep talk that would have motivated a sloth, like me.  And it did; let the games begin!  This third annual event had the most players, most women, and most Americans so far.  And for the first time, 8 qualified players under the age of 18 played with us.  The youngest was 14, and everyone agreed, these slender yet stellar youth added so much to the entire weekend experience.  On the other end, the oldest was 81.  You could never view a visual impairment as a life sentence after watching 80 people have so much fun over the next 3 days.

On Friday afternoon my Team Ontario’s first game was on.  I got dressed in the women’s locker room and then joined the men for a team meeting.  The only sighted members on the team were the volunteer coaches, who typically coach sighted players.  But they clearly had our backs and had the same goal as we did – have fun and win.  Many of the goalies are totally blind, defensemen partially sighted, and offensives are the highest of the low vision.  I played right wing and it took the first period to get my jitters out.  A collision in the first few minutes re-injured all my aches and pains.  I headed to the bench to assess the damage.  Neil Young went through my mind, “54 and there’s so much more.”  I’m 40 years older than my teammate sitting next to me.  But Mario, our goalie, is 58 and has the guts to listen to 3 offensive players with relatively good legally blind vision and extremely fast skates come down the ice towards him.  That’s gutsy, and I found myself back on the ice.

It paid off! Despite my inexperience and lack of serious physical value to the team, I got an assist!!  My teammates and coaches made a big deal about this, how fun is that?  Reflecting back, the sports I had participated in were basically individual sports – cross country skiing and running.  I played one season of ice hockey a long time ago.  The speed, glide, and intensity of this sport is exciting.  There’s nothing like it.  The super-sized noisy puck was easy for me to see within about 20 feet, which is more than you could say for the goalie or defensemen.  They rely more on the clanging of the ball bearings hidden inside the hollow metal puck.

The next two games were against the top two teams who ended up winning Gold and Silver.  But it was fun to watch my teammates dig deep and we only lost by one point each game.  Between games, Arden and I were able to swim at the hotel pool or roam the City.  But most of the time we hung out at the rink and we enjoyed watching the other games.  Strategies were formed as we observed our future competitors.  Someone would definitely need to shadow Christine, the scoring machine, Osika from the New York Nightshades and Courage USA.  She was small and mighty.  With his incessant humor, Mario thought I could distract her by striking up a conversation about cooking.  Like me, I’m not sure she’s a recipe enthusiast either but it didn’t matter, I never caught up to her out on the ice.

The last day, which determines final standings, had arrived.  After the last two very tough games, I just wanted to finish in one piece.  As a non-driver, my body is my vehicle to get my daughter at school, walk to work, and carry groceries up my steep hill.  But I’m preaching to the choir because everyone on the ice was in the same boat, and the consequences are quickly forgotten when the competitive instinct kicks in.  On the bench, Darren, the center, told me to go to the net more for potential passes.  Next thing I knew, there it was.  I was there, the puck was there.  I pushed it in through a tangled web of sticks and legs.  Score!!!  We ended up winning 11-3 for a Bronze medal and I was off the ice still in one piece.  The following week, my body still felt like a train wreck but I can guarantee that after watching my teammates leave nothing in the tank, they all felt the same.

After the last game, a nap should have been in order but Arden and I used our final afternoon in Toronto to take the subway to the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium.  All new territory, Arden took the tour guide position when mom started to panic on how to navigate in and out of structures.  The temperatures were unquestionably cold but we were able to stay underground or inside to tour the city.

Our winter sojourn half over, Arden and I ended up on the same train out of Toronto the next morning with Kevin Shanley, fellow Courage USA blind hockey player.  With his white cane, he showed us how easy it was to ask for help from the VIA Rail staff at the Toronto station.  They led us to great seats on the train so we didn’t have to needlessly stress in unfamiliar territory.  It was nice to just sit and chat for a few hours around the perimeter of Lake Ontario.  Kevin stayed on the train to Poughkeepsie .  But while we got off at Niagara, he noted my one hockey stick and mused.  “You’re supposed to bring 2 in case one breaks.”   There I am, unwittingly living life on the edge again.

At Niagara Falls, it felt like we could almost touch the icy cold, turbulent water on the right-hand edge of Horseshoe Photo of Arden and Maurie Niagara FallsFalls.  What a sight!  Later, dining in view of the falls, Arden and I talked about all the players and coaches on Team Ontario, all of the different types of vision impairments, and my slow skating, as she willingly pointed out.  She’s already excited to go again next year.  Muscles still sore, I wasn’t ready to commit just yet but was charmed by her enthusiasm.

Just what was it that made this event exceptionally captivating and fun for players, coaches, and spectators?  Inexperienced, I wasn’t exactly in my comfort zone playing with men who grew up with the sport.   And easy-going for the most part, I get frustrated, anxious, and annoyed when poor vision prevents me from finding where to go or what to do when I walk into a new place, out of my normal comfort zone.  So why would playing ice hockey, a normally visual sport be so empowering and fun? The final leg of this epic journey, a 7-hour train ride to Albany behind very slow freight trains gave me time to reflect.

Everyone on the ice has a cross to bear.  As Kevin says, if you like to play hockey, “there are no excuses.”  He doesn’t know how that statement kept me on that road to Toronto.  From my perspective, the black puck is large and noisy, and is good contrast on the white ice.  The ice lines are wide and clear.  The opposing team’s jersey colors are intentionally high contrasting. I could usually see where my teammates were and what direction they were going.  There is no small or large text on the ice to figure out which direction to go.  Unlike a sidewalk or a pot-holed road, the ice surface is smooth and predictable.  The ice rink is a confined space – no chance to get lost.  But rest assured, that didn’t prevent me from being at the wrong place at the wrong time, frequently.

The sport is fast and intense.  That always leads to good teamwork, camaraderie, strategy, competitiveness, followed by exhilaration, fun, and relaxation.  At this Courage Canada event, I’ve never been around such a large group of fun, happy people.  The coaches clearly were changed by the experience as they head back to coach their sighted players.  The spectator support was incredibly encouraging and heartfelt.

Because of blind hockey, Arden has now met other people with my eye condition, Stargardt’s, and has learned about a whole range of visual challenges.  She has met another set of sisters, Christine and Vicki, with Stargardt’s, as well as a daughter whose mother also cannot drive her to school either.  They are pretty cool people that she’d like to see again.   And she has seen her mom push past her fear and  go out of her comfort zone by choice.  And the choice is what makes all the difference.  We face uncomfortable situations every day; try one that fuels your spirit instead of your frustrations.

For more on Blind Hockey, check out some of these videos and links:

Zach Miller on his experience at the 2015 tournament

Dominick Tait and Alex Angus: overcoming barriers to play hockey

High Contrast Episode 27: Blind Hockey, my interview with Kevin Shanley

Lorne Webber’s goalie highlight reel from the 2015 Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament

Courage Canada web site and Courage Canada facebook page

Courage USA web site and Courage USA facebook page