ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A program for blind hockey players is giving experienced players and novices a chance to get on the ice in Minnesota.
Eighteen players have joined the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey program, which is the first of its kind in the state, Minnesota Public Radio News reported . Toni Gillen, disabled programs director for USA Hockey in Minnesota, said she didn't realize how big it would be when the program first started.
She said the response has been "amazing," and she anticipates the program will grow next year. Gillen said Minnesota was behind in blind hockey, which began in Canada in the 1970s and spread to six states before the Minnesota Wild program started in October.
"It's embracing a whole other community out there that we have not had hockey for in the past," Gillen said.
Nicholas Boisvert, a 35-year-old program participant, grew up playing hockey, but a degenerative condition took roughly 80 percent of his sight in his late 20s. Boisvert said he missed hockey, and the new program is giving him the chance to play again. He said stepping back onto the ice felt like "home."
"It felt like I could be happy again, being able to get out there and skate. It just felt natural," he said.
For Boisvert, the game's basic mechanics are the same, but he said now he has to pay attention to sounds and smells. The puck that the players use is larger, made of metal and has ball bearings inside.
At a recent practice, volunteers helped visually impaired skaters move through drills by tapping their sticks on the ice in the direction the players needed to skate.
Brady Bergquist, 12, whose peewee team volunteered at the practice, was grateful to get an hour of hockey with his 10-year-old sister, Emily, who is visually impaired.
"I don't get to skate with her much, so it was pretty fun," he said.