March 24, 2018

WU student, brother start St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club

Webster student Kyle Borah and his brother, Sean, have been visually impaired for most of their lives. Last June, Sean Borah expressed his desire for a blind hockey team in the St. Louis area through a Facebook post. He and Kyle launched the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club seven months later.

Sean Borah discovered blind hockey through social media, and he commented on the Facebook page for the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). BVA’s Program Director Bruce Porter saw the comment and flew to St. Louis within the next month. Porter donated 10 sets of equipment as well as seven blind hockey pucks to get the team up and running.

Love of the Game
Sean and Kyle Borah were born with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a rare genetic disorder characterized by degenerative loss of vision. Kyle Borah said RP manifests itself differently in each person. In his case, he does not have any central vision left, but is able to see through his peripherals.

“I do have some vision,” Kyle Borah said. “I can see some color, but close colors can blend into each other. The older I get, the more color blind I’m becoming, and I have a problem with distance and detail. If the sound is off on a movie, I might be able to see there’s moving pictures on the screen of the TV, but I won’t be able to tell what it is.”

Despite this, both brothers said sports played a significant role in their childhoods.

“I’ve been a big sports person all my life,” Kyle Borah said. “A lot of our video games, when my brother and I could see better to play them, were sports. I played kickball and other things in elementary school at recess, and my brother and I played stuff in the front yard all the time.”

As his vision deteriorated, Kyle Borah found it challenging to play competitively as an adult.

“I always had a dream to play sports, but obviously my vision put an end to that pretty quickly,” Kyle Borah said. “If I could see, I’d definitely be playing at least one sport, probably baseball. I’ve always wanted to play sports.”

Adaptive Sports
Kyle Borah played in Webster’s Beep Baseball event in October but felt it, along with many accommodative sports, was played “on the safe side.”

“There’s only a first and a third base,”  Kyle Borah said. “If you hit it to the left side, you run to first base, and if you hit it to the right side, you run to third base. It’s basically to keep the ball, the fielders and the runners so they don’t run into each other, which I guess is fine, but I want to run across the field or run to second base and play a physical game.”

Sean Borah agreed. He said he enjoys hockey because there are few changes in how the game is played.

“[Blind] hockey looks almost exactly like hockey, except there’s blind people playing it,” Sean Borah said. “It’s fast, it’s engaging and it’s physical. We add like two rules to the game, and we don’t take away any rules.”

Kyle Borah explained the modifications of blind hockey are in place mostly for safety purposes. According to the National Hockey League, other adaptations include blocking the top 12 inches of a regulation net, requiring players to complete a pass once they cross into the offensive zone and before they can shoot on goal, and mandating all players wear traditional protective gear, including a full face mask.

“For the most part, it’s still hockey,” Kyle Borah said. “You can still check people, you can still play a very physical game, and it helps you’re wearing a whole bunch of padding, obviously. There’s still normal penalties like high-sticking. High-sticking is honestly even more enforced in blind hockey than in normal hockey because you don’t want sticks up in the air with blind people skating around.”

Since most of the checking is accidental, enforcing penalties in games is difficult, according to Kyle Borah.

“The accidental checking is going to be a thing in blind hockey,” Kyle Borah said. “There’s going to be slashing and tripping because you try to get the puck with your stick, but there’s someone coming up on you, and if you move your stick, you’re going to trip them. I’m not sure how much those penalties are going to be called because there’s a lot if it. I think some of it will settle down with training and practice, but still there’s going to be some level of it.”

The Puck
The most notable modification in blind hockey is the puck. While a standard puck is 1 inch thick and 3 inches in diameter, a blind hockey puck is 2 inches tall and 5.5 inches in diameter. Both pucks weigh the same at roughly 5.5 to 6 oz.

A blind hockey puck is made out of metal, filled with metal ball bearings and spray painted black.

“The ball bearings in the metal puck, when they bounce around, they help us locate the puck,” Sean Borah said. “The movement of the ball bearings in the metal puck help us track the puck.”

Sean and Kyle Borah explained the puck’s design is helpful, but not ideal.

“One of the problems is the ball bearings are just sitting inside of the puck moving around, so if the puck stops, you literally can’t find it,” Kyle Borah said. “This can be an issue, especially when you’re learning how to stick-handle or are passing the puck around. If you skate past the puck and it stops, you can’t find it. A lot of the time during scrimmages and practices, we have to have someone sighted close to point out the puck when we lose it. So, that is one major downside.”

Kyle Borah also said due to their metal construction, the pucks are not durable.

The bad thing about those pucks is after two or three times, they get banged up a lot,” Kyle Borah said. “Because it’s metal, it bends.”

The team acquires pucks from USA Hockey, who works with a manufacturer in Canada that creates blind hockey pucks. Running at around $50 a piece, these pucks are difficult to obtain. Jeff Vann, the team’s coach, recently received a shipment of six new pucks.

“Just to put that in perspective, when my son plays and we’re doing practice, there’s probably about 80 to 100 pucks on the ice, and we’re dealing with being excited to get six,” Vann said. “Keep in mind, the pucks make noise, and the players have to be able to decipher where the noise is coming from. If you get too many pucks on the ice at once it’ll become confusing for them, so we are never going to have 80 pucks out there, but it does give you an idea of like what their resources are like.”

Building a Team
Under Vann’s coaching, the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club practiced three times over the course of the last six months. Vann has coached for eight years at the Kirkwood Youth Hockey Association. He said his decision to coach the blind hockey team was a “no-brainer.”

The team’s last practice was a Learn-to-Play event at Scottrade Center on Jan. 18.

“Most of our events we’ve had so far have been recruiting events, just getting people out on the ice and having them experience what hockey is about,” Vann said. “In July, we had about eight people after our [first event], and then we did another event in November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we ended up having a total of 10 people on board. And then we just had the event down at Scottrade Center, and we had 13 new people show up, eight of which never knew how to skate. And now after both events, we’ve got about 20 people participating.”

Through a grant from the St. Louis Blues, Vann acquired seven sheets of ice for the spring. Starting in March, the team will practice every other week, and Vann hopes to maintain that routine frequency year-round.

Sean Borah said the event was far more crowded than previous practices.

There was 25 blind people and another 25 volunteers on the ice,” Sean Borah said. “I was just on top of the world because it put things really into perspective. Six months or so ago, I was was like ‘hey, I want to do this’ and someone flew out, started the team, and six months later, I’m skating on the same ice as the St. Louis Blues with Barret Jackman and [Chris] Zimmerman. It was very, very humbling. Words fail me.”

Kyle Borah said Scottrade was one of the better rinks he has played at because it is bright and the lines on the ice are clearly defined. During the Learn-to-Play event, he got a compliment from former Blues defenceman Barret Jackman.

“I stripped the puck once or twice from one of the guys, and I cleared the puck down the ice a few times,” Kyle Borah said. “We were lining up at one point, and [Jackman] skated past me and was like ‘You play some good defense.’”

Porter also made an appearance at the team’s January practice.

“It was so cool to get out there and help,” Porter said. “There are a lot of things that put you in a position in life where you can help people, and it’s a great thing. It’s breaking through the barriers…hopefully I’ll be out there again soon.”

Looking Ahead
As the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club continues to build their team, they are working to solidify positions and future competitions.

Although nothing is set in stone at this point, Kyle and Sean Borah will most likely be defensemen.

“The more vision you have counts as points on the ice, and you can only have a certain number of points out on the ice at a time,” Kyle Borah said. “So, you can’t have a bunch of very high seeing ‘blind people’ on the ice against a bunch of super low vision people. Otherwise, it would be unfair. The forwards tend to have the most vision because they’re usually doing most of the skating, and the defensemen have lower levels of vision. And then totally blind people or people that can barely see shadows or bits of light are the goalies.”

Vann planned to focus on individual skill development in practices, due to the wide range of abilities on the team.

“Ice hockey is a very hard sport to learn how to play, not only stickhandling and shooting and passing, but you’ve got to learn how to ice skate first, which is a whole separate event in itself,” Vann said. “They’re doing this as an adult, which is more difficult than learning as a kid. [They are] learning how to ice skate and learning how to play the game and doing all of that with the disability they have with sight. All of the athletes are pretty amazing people.”

The team does not have any official games scheduled, but the Chicago Blackhawks blind hockey team challenged them to eventually play a game when both teams are ready. Some of the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club members will attend USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Festival in Chicago, Ill. on April 5-8.

“They’ll go up there, but they won’t be playing as the St. Louis Blues,” Vann said. “They’ll be playing as individuals on other teams. They will be placed individually on nearly four teams while they’re up there. They’ll pick players from around the country as an effort to make the teams equal and competitive, as well as allow people to meet friends from other places and get to know each other.”

The Spirit of Discovery Park
Vann works for a non-profit called the St. Louis Recreation Development Group. The organization is working to build an amusement park that would be totally accessible to people with disabilities and special needs, as well as their family and friends.

“A lot of people confuse it with a neighborhood park that has special access swings, but that’s not what this is,” Vann said. “This is an actual amusement park with rides–so carousel, ferris wheel, amphitheater, splash park, like a Six Flags type of thing. But, every ride is designed to have people with disabilities in mind, so they can come and enjoy it.”

The Spirit of Discovery Park will feature an ice rink designed for disabled sports like ice hockey, sled hockey, curling and figure skating. Once open, this rink will be the home for the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club’s practices.

Vann is trying to raise 35 million dollars in order to open the park. If everything goes according to plan, the organization will break ground on it next year.

While the theme park will benefit people after its opening, Vann sees the blind hockey team as a way he can make an immediate impact on the community.

“All the fundraisers we’re doing, all the planning we’re doing, all the work we’re doing is for the future,” Vann said. “What’s cool about [blind hockey] is it’s something that’s happening right now. It’s a way our park and our group can give back right now. We’re here trying to do good for people, and this is an opportunity for us to actually do good right now instead of just talking about it.”

Dining in the Dark
On Jan. 31, the blind hockey team attended the Foundation for Fighting Blindness’ Dining in the Dark event at the Ritz-Carlton. During this event, Chris Zimmerman, President and CEO of Business Operations for the Blues, was a recipient of the foundation’s Visionary Award.

“Hats off to the St. Louis Blues,” Porter said. “A lot of NHL teams have not taken the initiative to sponsor a disabled team. I think there’s only like five or six teams that have done it, and the St. Louis Blues is one of them.”

That evening, the team received unprecedented recognition.

“They put them right in front of the podium where he was talking, and they essentially became the central focus of this whole event,” Vann said. “At the end, each one of them was separately introduced and asked to stand up, and then they got a standing ovation.”

Teamwork Made the Dream Work
The St. Louis Blind Hockey Club has come a long way since Sean Borah’s Facebook post seven months ago. Sean and Kyle Borah agreed camaraderie among players was a huge benefit of starting the team.

“A lot of blind people haven’t had that experience of ‘I’m going to join a sports team, we’re going to be successful and we’re going to have that sort of team comradery you have on a sports team,’” Kyle Borah said. “It’s really cool to see people being successful, having fun and really enjoying their time.”

Vann hopes to eventually grow membership enough to where the club can house two separate teams, both for scrimmaging purposes and to separate the teams by age.

He said he could not have predicted the joy he would feel from coaching this team.

“To see the enjoyment everybody’s getting out of what’s going on is really what it’s all about,” Vann said. “Most of these people didn’t know each other six months ago, and now they’re talking all day, every day on the Facebook messenger app. It’s constant. People are going back and forth talking about hockey, talking about life, just really getting to know each other. To me, [blind hockey] is important for no other reason than the fact that this group is coming together.”

Kyle Borah said the team is still “finding their ice legs,” but he is pleased with the progress they have made beyond the fundamentals of the sport.

“[Blind hockey] shows people who may not otherwise get the chance what playing on a team feels like,” Kyle Borah said. “It’s important because a lot of blind people don’t get that experience at all. It’s definitely a good thing when we do, and it’s changing lives. It’s making an impact on not only my life, but on a lot of others’.”

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