At the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, most people who pass by the westernmost ice rink en route to see the Capitals scrimmaging on Sunday mornings might be astonished to know they’ve just witnessed blind people playing hockey.
“The biggest misconception is that they cannot play hockey full-speed without help. Ninety-nine percent of the game is the same,” said Nick Albicocco, who coaches the all-blind hockey team, the Washington Wheelers. “The puck is larger and makes noise and the goal is two feet shorter…. That’s about it”
Although the adapted version of hockey was officially founded in 1972 in Toronto, the sport has only made great strides in the U.S. very recently with the U.S. Blind Hockey Association (of which the Wheelers are one of eight city teams) only having formed in 2015.
This July, 30 players are being recruited for a national team under the U.S. Hockey Association and Falls Church resident Kevin Brown is among the five players selected to represent the Wheelers.
“Kevin’s a great example of how this sport inspires the blind community to come out and try something new and push their boundaries every week,” Albicocco said. “”He found us after playing other sports, and now he’s one of the best players in the country.”
Brown, a West Springfield native, has been legally blind since grade school due to a condition known as cone rod dystrophy which has caused degenerating eyesight at various levels throughout most of his life.
Despite this, Brown was able to excel at school sports such as soccer, track and field and basketball.
“Pole vault was probably the hardest thing,” he recalled. “You count your steps. I just needed to know [how far] off I was from my mark.”
In all these sports, Brown and other athletes rely on rapidly analyzing the environment with little visual cues.
In turn, the format of blind hockey accommodates that with a puck that makes noise and slight rule modifications. For example, at least one pass must be made in the attacking half of the rink before scoring to allow the goalie and defense to better track the puck.
For Brown, there has been an added challenge. He went from legally blind to losing his vision entirely in the early months of 2017 when his disease started massively degenerating. It’s to the point where he says he lost 10 percent of his vision every day.
At this stage, the only thing that registers for him visually are differences in light.
“[This] has given me a new sense of purpose,” said Brown. “It gives me something to motivate me, it inspires me to continue to push myself and [there is] a great cast of characters from the coaches to the volunteers.”
Part of the process for the coaches is to accommodate people at all stages of disability and work with their strengths. Because the rules require a certain ratio of blind to legally blind people at various levels to maintain fair competition, the coaches have to keep tabs on their players’ conditions.
This is how they are able to know that Brown’s 19-year-old teammate Caleigh Griffiths is also degenerating rapidly and will soon lose her vision.
Griffiths is illustrative of the wide variety of circumstances the Wheelers bring with them.
She has been playing hockey since age 5.
“Being born with it doesn’t make that much of a difference because I’ve been preparing my whole life,” she said.
Others like Ken Silberman have been blind since birth. Silberman is at a beginners’ stage where he is being guided on the ice by others and it will take him several steps before he will join the main scrimmages.
He has never seen hockey but he was intrigued by the sport because he grew up in Philadelphia and followed the Flyers’ success in the 1970s.
Albicocco is assisted by two coaches and Brown notes that the team’s morale is helped by Albicocco’s hockey buddies who regularly visit. Albicocco noted the generosity in support from the Capitals and mentioned team coach Barry Trotz has stopped by the locker room every couple months to give them an occasional pep talk.
In interviews, Brown is quick to talk about the influence of his family.
He credits them as well as his broader support circle for his tenacity both in and out of the rink.
Growing up, he and his sister Shanda were both affected by the same condition, which is passed through a recessive gene.
“My parents did well in raising me and giving me the tools. Thankfully they’re both still alive,” said Brown.
In addition to his parents, he counts on support from his brother James (the only sibling without vision problems), his wife Eileen and his children Jack and Henry.
Brown plans to attend the U.S. Blind Hockey team tryout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado in July.
With his full-time job at the Treasury Department, raising two kids and coaching sports at the Falls Church community center, he has a busy schedule.
“I’ll certainly do it at this stage, but it’s based on the level of commitment required,” said Brown.
At the same time, Brown knows this is an opportunity to grow what he sees as a sport with great promise.
Blind hockey is one of six different disciplines of disabled hockey recognized under the U.S. Hockey Association but the goal is to expand the sport into eight countries (it’s currently only played in the U.S. and Canada) so that the sport can apply to be part of the Paralympic Games.
Brown is eager to be a part of expanding the movement.
“There’s not that many sports you can play that have this level of speed and interaction,” said Brown. “It’s exciting. I’m in a unique position to have that opportunity and I hope it’s done in an effective way so that I can create a path for future generations.”