Team of visually-impaired skaters on journey across Ontario to raise money for blind hockey

A team of visually-impaired hockey players will be inline skating from Windsor to Ottawa this month in an effort to raise money for grassroots blind hockey programs and grow the sport in Canada.

The team will be visited Toronto on Sept. 5 and they’ll be continuing to tour the province until Sept. 11, with more stops planned in Durham, Belleville, Kingston, Gananoque, Brockville, Smiths Falls, Kanata and finally Ottawa. 

The ultimate goal is to skate for 1,000 kilometres and raise $100,000. The team has already exceeded their fundraising goal and have skated more than 100 kilometres each day, according to Matt Morrow, the executive director of Canadian Blind Hockey.

Each of the four skaters is accompanied by a guide to help them navigate the terrain and traffic on the journey to Ottawa.

Kelly Serbu, one of the skaters, plays centre on the Canadian national blind hockey team and is the president of Canadian Blind Hockey. He said that the funding will go towards grassroots blind hockey programs. 

Serbu was diagnosed with a hereditary eye disease at age 19, which led his eyesight to deteriorate. He said that he didn’t know many people who were visually impaired before he went to his first blind hockey tournament in Toronto, which led him to meet dozens of people like him.

“There’s not a lot of team sports out there for blind athletes. Hockey is one of them. So I decided to do what I can to help grow the sport and led those kids know, let the parents know, that the sport is available to them,” he said. “I want all Canadians to know that no matter what your vision is, you can play hockey and it can be safe.”

Mark DeMontis, left, said he hopes that blind hockey can one day be a sport in the Paralympic Games. (CBC)

Blind hockey has been growing for the past decade

Canadian Blind Hockey was founded by Mark DeMontis, who was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a hereditary disorder that leads to vision loss, at age 17. He first skated from Toronto to Vancouver in 2009 to raise money and then again from Halifax to Toronto in 2011. 

This year’s journey celebrates the 10th anniversary of his cross-Canada journeys.

DeMontis, who currently plays forward for the Canadian national blind hockey team, said he started to lose his eyesight one week before the beginning of his senior year of high school at Wilfred Laurier Collegiate in Toronto.

At the time, he was playing AAA hockey and looking at NCAA hockey scholarships, and the diagnosis derailed his dreams for an NHL career, he said.

“I discovered blind hockey, and that took me on a new journey in life,” he said.

Blind hockey is much like hockey, with the exceptions of a few different rules, DeMontis said. Nets are a foot shorter and the puck is larger, with ball bearings that rattle inside so players with less sight can find it. 

Attacking teams must also make at least one pass after they cross the offensive blue line before they can score.

The sport has grown since 2011, when there were only four blind hockey teams in Canada. Today, there are 14 Canadian teams, 20 teams in the United States and programs in six other countries, including England, Russia, Finland and Sweden.

Canadian Blind Hockey also started the annual Canadian National Blind Hockey Tournament in 2013 to develop and grow the sport.

DeMontis said he hopes that blind hockey will eventually be a sport at the Paralympic Games.

“That’s the ultimate dream, one day. There’s no reason why blind hockey shouldn’t be there. But before we get there, we have to get other countries playing the game,” he said.

“We’re really looking forward to one day holding the first ever world championships — six nations potentially — and then one day hopefully we can ask for a bid to get to the Paralympic Games.”

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