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Mind Game

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Gary Zarbock is a freelance writer and the owner of an electronic publishing business called Compu-Scribe. He is the Vice President of the Calgary Blind Hockey Association located in Calgary, Alberta. For further information call (403) 270-8834 or e-mail zarbockg@compu-scribe.com. This article originally appeared in Abilities Magazine, Winter, 2000, Issue 45.

The most alien sensation I have experienced is the gliding weightlessness of metal on ice - skating. My determination propels me in my day-to-day travel through an unpredictable and often dangerous sighted world. In order to survive this "trial by ordeal," blindness requires that shoes and firm ground form a co-dependent union. This relationship provides me with a position in time and space, a point of reference in a world cluttered with a myriad of threatening, untouchable invisibilities.

But when I need the ground pulled out from under me (in more ways than one), I escape to a land where gravity and frigid surfaces form with my body an inescapable love triangle. In this strange land where there are no trees, no hydrants, no poles, no potholes, no curbs, no ridges, no sandwich boards, in this alien environment where the landscape is uniformly flat and featureless, in this country of the blind hockey player -- the ice rink -- I thrive.

For over two decades, blind hockey has been quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, attracting the attention of Canadians in several provinces. It's not surprising, when you consider the widespread influence of hockey, a cultural pastime, in the lives of Canadians. In a country spanning vast frozen distances, In a country where geography has traditionally restricted inter-regional interaction among its citizens, hockey teams have played a significant role in identifying Canada's communities.

Newspaper articles, local sport radio programs, television coverage and celebrity appearances are all contributing to the rising awareness of the abilities and dissimilarities of the hockey player who is blind. The sport presents an opportunity for persons who are blind to increase their involvement in Canada's cultural activities.

What is the format of "Canada's greatest sport" made blind? There are few consistent answers. In Calgary, for example, a small cluster of ball bearings enclosed within a hollow, moving, metal puck transforms the rink into a theater of sound. An empty 48-ounce juice tin is used by Les Hiboux de Montreal instead of the specially designed Calgary puck preferred by the Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton teams. The Toronto puck is a plastic wheel containing piano pins.

The teams encourage their goalies' protection and participation by insisting that, in order to score, players cannot "raise" the puck above waist-height (Toronto Ice Owls); above knee-height (Vancouver Eclipse and ASRAB Seehawks); or above ice level (Calgary Seeing Ice Dogs). Such a rule means that the puck remains active most of the time; that is, it stays near or at ice level throughout most scoring plays, allowing goalies who are blind to hear its jingling progress.

The number of players who are actually blind, even in the largest Canadian cities, is minuscule. All teams have increased the inclusiveness of their sport by allowing sighted players regular or temporary participation. In Calgary, a player's level of blindness is revealed by the colour of his helmet: black for total, red for partial, and white for sighted. Moreover, the Calgary Seeing Ice Dogs encourage level competition with, and the education of, local sighted teams by requiring them to wear a series of goggles that simulate a range of vision disabilities.

Most teams, however, play sighted teams with little or no modification. For most teams, only players who are blind may score, and only a goaltender who is blind may mind his or her own and opposing nets. In other respects, the structure of blind hockey offers no distinction from its traditional counterpart, save one: the predominance of adult players. Women have played the sport on most teams, but an absence of the formalized training of youth, coupled with the financial restrictions facing blind hockey in general, may only partially explain the lack of pre-teen involvement anywhere.

For a goaltender that is totally blind, like me, the trajectory of a Calgary puck drifting into the defensive zone draws him back to the rink, back to the approaching shark fin of sound cutting towards the net. Who is the puck carrier? Is he a "total" or "partial"? Is the partially blind player going to deke, or will he fire from the blue line, or from closer in -- or will he try the always-feared "wraparound"? Or will it be the randomized howitzer of a shooter who is totally blind? Where are the damn defense?! This is how the mind game begins.

If the sound is moving from side to side in shortened bursts, or if it is wide and erratic, the approaching shooter is likely partially blind, his stick handling and level of confidence giving him away. At this moment, I decide to employ tactics intended to offset the sight differential. I move out to challenge before he gets too close, reducing the size of the net behind me. Not too far from the goalposts, I give the skater little or no skating room inside the goal crease, thereby avoiding the dreaded deke. From inside the hash marks (close range), I know he'll see the opening and fire, and he does -- at the open side of the cage I've seemingly unknowingly abandoned at this point. But no, this "open side" is intended to draw his shot, and at that critical instant I move, having fooled the shooter, having gained control of the direction of the shot.

The pinnacle of blind chance is realized in the next rush, in the straight approach of an almost-silent puck about to be drilled anywhere within a 180-degree firing range by a totally blind shooter. Minimizing the angle, I slide forward, with a stick check in mind if he skates in too far - a surprise at the doorstep. The unpredictability of the encroaching shot weaves wild enactments of the words anticipation and anxiety in my mind. From a distance beyond a stick check, the shot is released -- the importance of timing all too realized when I drop to block the non-discriminating shot.

Too late! I hear the rattle of the puck impacting the net behind me. Unlike the calculated firing of a shooter who is partially blind, the randomized shot of a shooter who is totally blind requires heightened reflexes, deception strategies being futile in any case.

A struggle for control plays out in the relationship between goaltender and shooter. Faced with a tendency for shooters to be partially blind, a goalie who is totally blind must develop a style of play distinct from other goalies. Although there are no visible clues alerting the goalie to the nature of the shooter, there are also no distractions or barriers, allowing free action in the rink. In the country of the totally blind net "minder," the mind guides the body into a realm of expression difficult to derive from everyday mobility. In this mind game, blindness and movement become one

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