Two years ago, Ted Caputo, a father of two visually impaired boys, received an email that piqued his interest. He had taken his sons to skate with the New York Islanders, and someone subsequently emailed him to gauge his interest in blind hockey — a sport that started in Canada as early as the 1970s but has slowly gained traction in the U.S.
"I said, 'What the heck is blind hockey?'" Caputo recalled. "I knew nothing about it at the time. I did a little research and was like, 'Wow, this is really cool.' It's hockey. It's visually impaired. It's volunteer work, which we love. I figured to combine the two — volunteering and hockey — would be the perfect niche for my family."
Yet, nothing came out of the conversation, Caputo said. Determined to find something that his boys (and others who were visually impaired) could look forward to every week, he reached out to USA Hockey, the country's governing body for organized ice hockey, for advice. Instead of directing him to the closest league or club, the organization suggested that he start a league of his own.
"I said, 'Well, it wasn't my original intention,'" Caputo said. "And the joke always is I'm not an athlete, I don't skate, I don't play hockey. But you know, with the right support, with the right volunteers, with the right advice from the right people, you can really put a good program together."
Ice hockey is a sport that requires intense coordination. Players not only have to skate forward, side-to-side and backward, they also need to know how to execute a crossover and recover to a balanced standing position. Throw in a hockey stick and a one-inch-thick puck, and athletes quickly find themselves testing their reflexes. Add the risk of getting hit by the puck at an extreme velocity or by another player charging at full speed, and the sport becomes a test of character.
"I know, football players are tough, too," one Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer wrote in 2017. "Just not quite as tough as hockey players."
Now, imagine playing some version of hockey visually impaired. The thought of it, especially to someone who doesn't have clear vision, can be intimidating. It's one of the reasons why Caputo initially had trouble recruiting players for Long Island-based New York Metro Blind Hockey (NYBMH), one of New York's first blind hockey clubs.
"It's simply hard for someone to say, 'You know, I'm blind, and I can ice-skate and play hockey,'" he said. "So, the challenge is definitely recruiting players."
Unlike that of regular ice hockey, the playing field in blind hockey is level, Caputo said. Players are graded according to their eyesight, from legally blind to totally blind. Those who are completely blind typically play goalie while lower-sighted players play defense and higher-sighted players play offense. The game also uses a puck filled with ball bearings so that players can track the puck using their ears.
Though it may seem novel to many, the sport has picked up steam in recent years. In fact, participants from both the U.S. and Canada came together in 2015 to create the International Blind Ice Hockey Federation with the purpose of getting blind hockey recognized in the Paralympics.
"Everyone is excited for this to happen," Caputo said. "I would love to finally see one of New York's players wearing a Team USA jersey at the Paralympics. That would be fantastic."
In the beginning, Caputo said he reached out to multiple agencies to help advertise his club, including Brooklyn-based nonprofit Helen Keller Services for the Blind and a local Veteran Affairs hospital. He got the New York Islanders to let them use their rink and would even bring his sons along to help convince others to join NYMBH.
"At my talks, I try to get the people involved," Caputo said. "I promise no commitment. Tell them there's a one-on-one volunteer ratio [and that] we have trained coaches. And once they come to an event, I'll try to pair them up with a volunteer."
Over the course of the past two years, NYMBH has enlisted approximately 10 viable players and recruited 10 other children who are learning how to play, Caputo said. It has also garnered interest from residents in other areas, including Washington D.C. and Connecticut. Most importantly, however, it has instilled confidence in those who never once thought they would be able to participate in hockey, let alone any sport.
"It's amazing," Jeremy Schankin, one of NYMBH's players, told In The Know. "You know, it's like, with the whole blind thing, you'll never think you'd be able to come out here and play, of all sports, hockey."
In 2015, researchers from the National Eye Institute estimated that 1 million Americans were legally blind (20/200 vision or worse), 3.2 million had visual impairment (20/40 vision or worse) and an additional 8.2 million had vision issues "due to uncorrected refractive error." Over the next 30 or so years, those figures are expected to double. The number of people with legal blindness, for instance, is projected to jump 21 percent every decade and hit 2 million by 2050. The number of those with best-corrected visual impairment, on the other hand, will double to 6.95 million.
Though the data may be concerning for some, perhaps what's more troubling is the fact that many visually impaired children do not take part in some form of physical education. In 2012, the American Foundation for the Blind estimated that 52,000 school-aged children were blind and visually impaired. Nearly 70 percent of those children were not involved "in even a limited physical education curriculum." Caputo said his club's purpose is not only to motivate them to be active but also to encourage them to socialize with one another.
"I just feel like it's great to give people who are visually challenged the opportunity to get off the couch, get healthy," he said. "[It's great to] make something available to them that they probably never thought they could do. Even, more importantly, I've seen so much of a change in my kids and the players in a social aspect. You travel to these different tournaments, and they make friends."