WASHINGTON, DC — A few months ago, Craig Fitzpatrick, a buddy and former rec league hockey teammate, told me that he planned to organize a blind hockey event in Washington, DC. Fitzpatrick suffers from a degenerative eye condition that has rendered him legally blind. While I thought the event sounded like a great idea, I really wasn’t sure what kind of turnout to expect.
On Saturday morning, I walked into the Washington Capitals practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, for this Blind Hockey event – and I was blown away but what I found. The turnout was tremendous. There were men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds there for the opportunity to do something that a sighted person like me takes for granted – to step out onto the ice in skates.
Fitzpatrick, the event organizer and the founder of the Washington Wheelers Blind Hockey club, told me that the event drew over 70 blind skaters and 63 volunteers. He said participants from Toronto, Montreal, New York, Baltimore, Richmond, and the DC area showed up at Kettler on Saturday.
According to Fitzpatrick, this event is the largest of its kind anywhere – including Canada.
Leveling the Playing Field, a charity that helps under-privileged children enjoy sports, donated more than $25,000 worth of hockey equipment. This meant that all that participants had to do was show up.
Blind hockey players were paired up with volunteers who would serve as their personal coach for the day.
As I was preparing to head out onto the ice, a mother and her young son Michael – who I had helped outfit with gear earlier – stopped me. She said her son had never been on the ice before, that she didn’t know what to do next, and that he was afraid of falling down. I told her that I would be happy to be her son’s coach for the day.
I held on to Michael as he cautiously placed his first skate onto the ice. I know how scary stepping onto the ice in skates for the first time can be – at one point, we were all beginners taking those frightening first steps. What I can’t imagine, however, is how much scarier that must be for someone who lives in a world of almost total darkness.
I told Michael that he had nothing to worry about, I reassured him that with all his gear on that he wouldn’t even feel a thing if he fell. I watched him take those first few steps in skates on the ice and I watched as his mother stood on the other side of the glass beaming with pride and taking all the photos she could of the moment.
I spent over an hour on the ice with him. By the end, I had him skating across the ice without my assistance. He got to feel the puck on his stick, to pass it back and forth and I even helped him shoot the puck into the back of an empty net.
Michael’s mother told me how much it meant to her and to her son to have me take the time to teach him the basics. What neither of them knows is that I am far more in debt to them than they are to me. While I may have helped Michael learn to skate, Michael helped remind me just how lucky and blessed I really am.
So what’s next for Blind Hockey in DC? Fitzpatrick says they are hoping to launch a regular monthly practice if they can find a rink willing to participate. He also said that he will be playing in the USA Hockey disabled festival in Detroit in April and that he will likely bring two or three of the participants from this weekend’s event along with him.