Since the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals began playing in the 1970s, the sport of ice hockey has steadily grown in popularity on various levels throughout the metro area.
One organization joining that mix is the Washington Blind Hockey Club (WBHC), which began in 2016. Using ice rinks in various metropolitan locales, including Arlington’s MedStar Capitals Iceplex, SkateQuest in Reston and The St. James in Springfield, the co-ed club provides blind and visually-impaired individuals an opportunity to learn to skate and compete in hockey.
Blind hockey is the same fast-paced sport as ice hockey with only one main difference – all players are legally blind. Players’ levels of vision range from low vision to total blindness, with the lowest-vision athletes typically playing defense or goalie.
The rink sizes are the same, but the most significant modification of the sport features an adapted puck that makes a loud noise and is bigger and slower than a traditional puck. Other adaptations are shorter nets to keep the puck low and near the ice so it can make noise and be audibly tracked.
The club has some 15 players on its roster – including four who are also members of the US Blind Hockey team. There is no age limit; team members range in age from 5 to 70. Players have varying degrees of vision and functionality depending on their blindness.
Aiden McCown is a 15-year-old high-school sophomore. I have joined the team four years ago. McCown has about 30 percent of his vision of him.
“It’s a blast and a fun game to play and experience,” the winger said. “I started following hockey, learned about this league and joined. Even for us, it’s not that different from a game.”
McCown says he has little trouble knowing where the puck is at all times.
Teams must complete one pass prior to scoring in the attacking half of the rink. This provides both the low-vision defenders and the goalie an extra opportunity to track the puck.
“This is something that really teaches all the players how to adapt, and they all do that quite well,” said Katie Mitchell, who is the team treasurer and handles publicity.
Her husband, Charlie, plays for the team.
Charlie Mitchell said playing blind hockey reminds him to free himself from the limits that he and others in society place on him because of his visual impairment. Charlie Mitchell was an elite amateur skater before losing his vision because of a degenerative retinal disease. He thought his hockey days were over, along with his ability to do many other things that he loved.
“I watched him slide into a dark place and lose hope for the future,” his wife said. “When he discovered blind hockey, I saw his zest for life return. His participation in him changed his outlook in life.
Kevin Brown, age 55, is the club president, as well as a player for the team, joining five years ago. He is nearly totally blind and had never played the sport prior to his involvement with the squad.
“This team gives you the opportunity to re-engage and continue that competitive fire as a player,” Brown said. “It helps improve your confidence and keeps you young at heart. The most important thing is you build some great life-lasting relationships and this teaches you so much about life. This has changed my life.”
Brown’s position is primarily to defend. With the way the puck is set up and with dialogue with teammates on the ice, he too knows the puck’s location.
“This is real hockey, with a twist,” Brown said.
The club recently held a free Try Blind Hockey event and clinic in Reston that included an exhibition game. More than 50 participants of all age groups, with the youngest 5, and abilities took part. The club provides equipment and everything needed for participants.
“There was a lot of interest and it was a great event for everyone involved,” Katie Mitchell said.
In coming weeks, the club hopes the MedStar Capitals Iceplex can be arranged for its home ice, which it was prior to the pandemic.