Video courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Springs native Mike Straub awoke in a hospital bed, opening his eyes to a room that was dark and blurred. He never regained his sight and was designated legally blind.
That was nearly 24 years ago. Straub lost his vision as a result of surgery to repair nerve damage in his back, and he was was forced to step back from playing hockey.
Five years ago, however, Straub took his first step toward a return to playing the sport he had to give up, attending the Colorado Avalanche’s inaugural Try Blind Hockey Clinic. It rekindled Straub's passion for hockey and eventually led him to become a goalie and member of Team USA’s first blind hockey team in 2018.
Mike Straub (right) at the Blind Hockey Try Hockey for Free Clinic on May 18.
Straub, 64, admitted he’s past his physical prime but is adamant about sharing with others the gift blind hockey’s given him.
That's why he recently participated in the Avs’ fifth annual Blind Hockey Try Hockey for Free Clinic at South Suburban Sports Complex on May 18.
Partnering with Colorado Visionaries Blind Hockey club, the Avs hosted 30 participants, ages 4 and up, with varying degrees of visual impairments — many of whom had never laced up skates or stepped on an ice sheet before. The event is part of the NHL’s Try Hockey for Everyone initiative.
“There’s something about it. If I'm on the ice playing hockey, I can’t quit talking about it for days and how it makes me feel a different freedom,” Straub said, adding that the clinic offers participants that same opportunity. “When they come out on the ice and they get to experience that and have that opportunity to be on the ice — they can feel it, hear it, smell it and experience that.”
Only 2% of Colorado’s population lives with visual impairments, and Straub said that he didn’t know anyone in his area who was blind. Through Colorado Visionaries, born out of the first Try Blind Hockey event five years ago, Straub has connected with other visually impaired athletes who are pushing the growth of blind hockey — a sport that is just five years old in the United States but has been played for over two decades in Canada.
“The most important thing we've created with this program is a community and support system for visually impaired and blind people,” Visionaries team manager Kent Martin said. “We want to create that community aspect for moral support, so they can walk into the locker room and not have to explain themselves.”
While blind hockey players deal with a spectrum of visual impairments and other disabilities, they play a starkly similar brand of traditional hockey. The only noticeable difference: the puck, which is made of steel, is three times the size of a regular hockey puck and filled with ball bearings that allows skaters and goaltenders to use their hearing track the puck. Considering players’ different classifications of blindness, the “one-pass rule” requires the attacking team in the offensive zone to pass the puck once to allow the defense to locate and track the puck.
Different rules can cause some confusion to the general hockey observer, but the highlights on the ice between blind and traditional hockey are nearly indistinguishable — embodying the Visionaries' slogan: “Blind athletes don’t do different sports, we just do sports differently.”
“That embraces hockey is for everyone and, with disabled people, that same saying applies,” Martin added. “We really embrace that diversity and congratulate USA Hockey and the Avs for embracing the community.”
The Visionaries have sustained their program, one of 19 in the country, over the past five years and have continued to draw more participants through events and the support of the Avalanche.
“It’s another outlet for people who think there are limitations to playing hockey,” said Connor Duckhorn, the Avalanche’s Program Manager of Amateur Hockey Development. “Hosting an event like this, it just goes to prove hockey is truly for everyone by giving them a resource an outlet and an opportunity.”
The Avalanche continue their efforts to promote blind hockey by sharing the Visionaries' newsletters and displaying promo videos at home games.
For those who'd like to try blind hockey, the Visionaries practice once a month and keep an updated calendar of events on their Facebook page. If you’d like to support Colorado Visionaries, click here.
“Blind hockey is really special. It definitely changed my perspective on life,” Straub said. “It’s been awesome to be able to share it.”
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