Early Sunday morning, at Kettler Iceplex, I experienced something extremely special. And it wasn’t just one thing, it was several things, people and organizations who all came together to make something beautiful, someone’s vision, their blind vision – a reality. Please allow me to introduce you to the DC Chapter of USA Blind Hockey – the Washington Wheelers.
I arrived at Kettler early yesterday morning (Sunday) at 7:30am. I entered a locker room that was bustling with high energy and activity. The room is square, with benches all around the perimeter. There was a flurry of motion as everyone was suiting up and getting into their hockey gear. There are men, women, boys and girls – all different ages. Skates are laced, tape is being applied, shoulder pads, shin guards, helmets…it’s quite an ordeal to get ready to hit the ice….especially when you are unable to see.
Shortly thereafter, this high-energy group heads out and onto the ice. It’s eight o’clock and the rink belongs to the Washington Wheelers for the next hour. The Wheelers get right to work, they know what to do and seem to need little direction. Being my first time observing the team, I’m on the ice with them, simply watching what seems to me to be the impossible. Blind Hockey.
Of our five senses, I was reflecting upon which ones I was using while skating. And vision was without a doubt the sense I was relying on to its greatest capacity. And I was also noticing that hearing, while on the ice was extremely difficult. I actually felt hearing impaired, as there was quite a bit of commotion on the ice and the acoustics, or lack thereof at an ice rink make it extremely difficult to hear.
Hearing is important to the sport of Blind Hockey, because they use an adapted puck that contains a bell. Face-offs begin with the puck on the ice and the players may only touch it on the referee’s whistle – this makes it a competition of reaction time and does not favor the player with the most (limited) vision. Goals may only be scored in the bottom 3 feet of the net – the adapted Blind Hockey puck does not currently make noise in the air so it is unfair to the goalie to score in the top of the net.
Teams must complete one pass prior to being able to score in the attacking half (after the center-ice red line) of the rink – this provides both the low vision defense and the goalie an extra opportunity to track the puck.
So, while hearing is very important in Blind Hockey, even that sense is limited, simply due to the rink conditions. That leaves our blind players with the three remaining senses: taste, smell and touch. Not necessarily the senses I’d go to when trying to ice skate and to play competitive hockey. I was amazed, mesmerized actually, while watching the players doing so well. In my mind, what I was observing was nothing short of remarkable.
Craig Fitzpatrick spearheaded the effort to bring Blind Hockey to the DC region. Craig, who is considered to be legally blind, has a form of Macular Degeneration that is unusual in nature, because typically this eye disease affects the elderly, and not the young. Craig experienced his vision loss in his twenties.
When I was talking with Craig, he told me that “he is a startup kind of a guy,” his strengths are in logistics and he used these strengths in bringing the Washington Wheelers concept to fruition. Craig graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a bachelors in Engineering Technology. After graduating, he was a Logistics/Maintenance Officer in the Air Force for nearly five years. Craig then went on and received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from St. Louis University and just a few years ago received a Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering from Columbia University. In addition to playing on the Washington Wheelers, Craig also enjoys playing hockey with the USA Warriors, both a standing hockey team and a sled hockey team of disabled veterans – both men and women – who play regularly here in the DMV, and who travel to play competitive games throughout the United States and Canada.
Just a year ago, Craig stumbled upon an article that discussed using an electronic hockey puck. This electronic hockey puck was being considered for use in blind hockey leagues. At the time, Craig was unaware of any blind hockey leagues in the DMV. Craig reached out to the author of the article who told him about a Blind Hockey Summit in New York that was coming up, and he invited Craig to attend. Craig was thrilled to go, and shortly thereafter, Craig was leading the charge to bring blind hockey to the DMV.
As with most non-profit organizations, it takes more than just one person leading the charge. Craig’s strength of logistics and his natural ability to connect with others was extremely helpful in getting the Washington Wheelers up and running. One of his initial calls was to the Washington Capitals, specifically Peter Robinson, Sr. Manager of Community Relations. Peter and the Capitals did not hesitate to offer their support to the Washington Wheelers and they offered not only their direct, but indirect support as well.
Peter was able to help Craig by introducing him to a Silver Spring based non-profit organization called Leveling the Playing Field (LPF), whose mission is to give underprivileged children the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of athletic involvement.
Leveling the Playing Field is able to fulfill their mission largely through their extremely substantial donations of sport equipment, it may not surprise you that Leveling the Playing Field is supported generously by Monumental Sports and Entertainment. LPF has provided equipment to the Washington Wheelers as well as to many other athletic groups in the DMV who support individuals with vision impairment. As Craig is extremely active with various organizations in the community who help the visually impaired, he was able to introduce LPF to many of those organizations, and LPF was eager to offer their support.
Ian Cohen, LPF’s Client Services Director, joined the Washington Wheelers on Sunday morning and took to the ice! He even got into the goal! Ian, who was LPF’s second employee, is passionate about the organization’s mission. You could easily feel his passion and his true interest in the organizations LPF supports. To find out more about Leveling the Playing field, please click here to go to their website.
The Capitals, Monumental Sports and Entertainment and Leveling the Playing Field support the Washington Wheelers in numerous ways! Craig says “…their support [of the Washington Wheelers] makes me feel like family, they are exceedingly good to the community!”
Recently, Stan Galiev and Jakub Vrana of the Washington Capitals came out and skated with the Washington Wheelers! Not only did Stan and Jakub skate and coach, but they joined the team for breakfast, afterwards.
Another important team member is Tina Butera, M.D., the Washington Wheelers’ Medical Advisor. Tina is a Pediatric Ophthalmologist, she is a physician who provides children’s eye care and she is an eye surgeon. Tina is a passionate Capitals fan and through her profession she’s introduced to many visually impaired children, and the Washington Wheelers program means a lot to her. She and Craig were connected early on and Tina worked with Craig in launching the Washington Wheeler program along with the Capitals and Monumental Sports and Entertainment.
An additional critical Washington Wheeler team member is Amy Grossman, who is the Executive Director. Amy helps to teach and coach. Once Amy stepped onto the ice, she never stopped instructing the players. She largely works 1:1, as shown here in the image to the left. You could easily tell, simply by observation, that Amy is passionate and serious about her training. She was so very focused for the entire hour.
In the goal for most of the morning was Doug Goist. Craig met Doug in a local bar about a year ago, and one thing led to another, and now Doug is on the ice and between the pipes! And he’s loving every minute of it. Doug seemed so at ease, deflecting the pucks that he was unable to see – only able to hear the bell that sounds when the stick hits the puck. His reactions were stellar, and he did a terrific job of keeping the puck from hitting the back of the net! Doug seemed to find a natural fit as the Wheelers’ netminder.
There is one more group that makes the Washington Wheelers possible. And that group is made up of the numerous volunteers who join the team each Sunday. Matthew Higdon, Jennifer Love, Josh Laughner and Sue Rider are just a few who were on hand and one the ice with the team this past Sunday. I can describe what I saw from these individuals as: caring, patient, loving, kind, giving and genuine. I witnessed them helping, playing with, assisting, coaching and teaching the blind players, and it just came so naturally to all of them. And none of these volunteers had any previous experience with Blind Hockey before becoming involved with the Washington Wheelers. Watching all of this come together was an extremely heart warming experience.
If you would like more information about the Washington Wheelers, or if you would like to volunteer, please contact Craig Fitzpatrick by emailing him here.
If you would like to make a donation to the Washington Wheelers, you can do so by clicking here.
The Washington Wheelers is a non-profit BLIND adaptive hockey team based at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia – the home of the Washington Capitals.
The Wheelers play in both the US and Canadian Blind hockey leagues. All players must have at least 90% vision loss. Playing hockey allows the freedom to be physically active and socialize with others with similar disabilities. The donations they received are used for ice time, lessons, coaching, equipment, uniforms, and travel expenses to tournaments, etc.
Attending the Washington Wheeler practice was an extremely moving experience for me for a number of reasons, some of what I witnessed is difficult to adequately put into words. As a contributor for NoVa Caps, I am fortunate to be so often reminded of just how giving and kind the Washington Capitals community is. Observing and learning how the Washington Wheelers organization has come together, was without a doubt another reminder of just how special our “Caps Nation” community is – thanks to all of you for being a part of it!
By Beckie Reilly