Bob Mead-Colegrove was a nervous wreck. A new hockey dad, Bob had signed up to play music for his son Andrew’s hockey game. Andrew was playing goalie for Team USA against Team Canada and, at 16, he was the youngest person on the team. Bob settled in next to the people running the scoreboards, who could tell he was tense and tried to reassure him.

Mead-Colegrove had never imagined that his son would actually play hockey. Now, he was about to watch him compete and was feeling somewhere between proud and scared to death. He watched Andrew standing in front of the goal. It was a miracle he could play at all.

It started with Camp Abilities

Andrew was born with Leber congenital amaurosis, which blinded him entirely. Bob decided early that he wanted Andrew to have the experiences of any other child — sports, competition, fun with friends. He and his wife sent Andrew to Camp Abilities, a sports camp for children with visual impairments. Soon Andrew was attending the camp multiple times each summer, often only visiting his family for help with laundry. At camp, Andrew climbed high rope courses, played disc golf, and learned to play goalie in blind hockey.

Now he was representing Team USA against an experienced blind hockey team. While blind hockey came to the US in 2017, Canadians have been playing the sport since the 1970s. It has many of the same rules as regular hockey, but the goal is a foot shorter, the goalies are completely blind, and the puck is bigger, made of steel, and filled with ball bearings.

Hearing is everything for blind hockey goalies. Before a shot can be taken at the goal, the referee must blow a whistle and a pass must be made, the ball bearings in the puck making a distinctive rattle. The puck usually comes toward goalies on the ground, where they can better locate the sound and stop the puck by dropping down to their knees.

Listening for the puck

As the game started Andrew was focused, waiting for the whistle and rustling ball bearings. The Canadian crowd was screaming. He felt a rush of adrenaline and his focus narrowed, priming his legs for action. The whistle blew, the puck rattled, the crowd screamed louder. The whistle blew again; here comes the puck.

A forward on Team Canada launched the puck into the air. Forwards in blind hockey are legally blind, but can still see, while defensemen are slightly more blind. But as in any other hockey game, once the puck is past the defense and coming toward the net, no other players matter, it’s all up to the goalie to make the save. Andrew heard the puck lifting off the ice. He reached his glove out and the puck smacked against him. He made the save.

Bob exhaled.

Spreading the news

While blind hockey — also referred to as adaptive hockey — may currently be a well-kept secret, Bob and Andrew think that it’s poised for growth.

To do their part, Bob and Andrew have become part of the Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports (GBAS) Lions Club, a 22-member virtual club located in Buffalo, New York that was formed purely to support blind hockey. Andrew will soon be a Leo in an attached club — at 16, he’s still too young to become a Lion. Members of the two clubs will support the hockey team, volunteer, and play for the team.

The relationship between the Lions and blind hockey started when Regina Cecconi, president of the Lewiston Lions and an immediate past district governor, saw a game and felt amazed by the players. Cecconi, a former hockey mom, had no idea blind hockey existed and thought that the game was just like regular hockey, except for the rattling of the puck. She could hardly tell the players were blind; many seemed to have a sixth sense for hockey.

After the game, Cecconi was introduced to Norm Page, president of GBAS, formerly known as The Sled Hockey Foundation. Norm started the foundation with his wife Sandy and his son Adam, a three-time Paralympic Gold Medal winner in sled hockey, to help grow the sport of sled hockey. They then turned their efforts toward growing blind hockey and had sponsored the game Cecconi saw.

Norm asked Cecconi if the Lions could help GBAS form a blind hockey team in Buffalo. She offered something even better. “You could have your own club,” she told him. This isn’t how the Lions usually help, but she saw GBAS’s potential to click with the mission of the Lions.

Dreaming of playing hockey

Adam Page grew up watching the Buffalo Sabres, wishing that he could play hockey. But he was born with birth defects, hydrocephalus and spina bifida, which left his spine improperly developed and sent him into multiple surgeries. Even so, Adam wanted to play hockey, so he did.

At six, Adam joined a sled hockey team sponsored by the Sabres. In sled hockey, players sit in specially designed sleds, using their arms to move around the ice. The game became second nature to Adam, who won six medals in the Paralympics, including three golds.

When Adam wasn’t playing sled hockey, he was with his dad, Norm, traveling and teaching others how to play and form teams. They’d host clinics across multiple cities — city by city, Norm and Adam built sled hockey.

Now, Norm and Adam hope to do the same with blind hockey, opening it to anyone who is blind and wants to play on the GBAS Lions. They also want to build more teams in upstate New York so they can have regional competition, which would make it easier to have matches without requiring weekend travel for families. Then, perhaps, the sport will keep growing until there are multiple blind hockey across the region and, eventually, the country.

Already, the GBAS team has a powerful sponsor: The Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres donated money to the GBAS Lions and allowed it to use the Sabres logo.

“Blind people haven’t had a chance to play hockey before,” Norm says. “This gives them an opportunity to participate in a great sport. We can’t get out there quick enough to give these athletes an opportunity, get the word out there, and get these programs built. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”

Blind hockey and Lions are a perfect match

When Cecconi first introduced the idea of creating a club solely to support a blind hockey team, some Lions were skeptical. Cecconi remembers being asked why blind hockey players would want to be Lions. She had a simple response: “Why wouldn’t they want to be Lions?”

“We support the visually impaired,” Cecconi says. “If a blind team came to us and said, ‘Would you help us with this service activity?’ we’d automatically say yes. So why not have a club where the players and everyone involved are Lions?”

Norm believes that the partnership is a perfect fit, one he’s surprised hasn’t happened anywhere else yet. One big reason the partnership works so well, he says, is financial support. It’s often difficult for families of disabled children who play sports, he says, as competition quickly becomes expensive. There’s overnight travel, paying for ice time, team dues, and buying or renting equipment. By the end, it can be a small fortune. But much of the burden of money will be handled by Lions fundraisers.

“The Lions know what they’re doing,” Norm says. “They know how to raise money, they’re in the community. They’re so supportive. It’s such a natural fit.”

It takes time for a sport to grow, Norm says, but if enough young people like Andrew get involved in blind hockey, the sport will have staying power.

“More than anything, I’m excited for the athletes,” he says. “They’re going to have an opportunity to be in programs that can sustain themselves, because they’ll have the support of Lions Clubs. It’s powerful to know that somebody has your back.”

Sport is sport

When Adam first started playing sled hockey, he wanted to eventually play professionally. His mom gently told him it wasn’t likely. But he soon realized that what he was doing was still sport.  “You can’t argue the fact that this is hockey,” Norm says. “And most of us know what sport can do. It’s physical, it’s mental, and it’s social. It’s needed more for our community of athletes with disabilities, because they don’t have those opportunities. What it can do for them in society and for their own self-esteem [is amazing]. It’s helping them realize that they can do anything. It’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Andrew is unsure whether he’ll be playing blind hockey into adulthood—he’s still enjoying his childhood, playing sports and raising money for other kids to attend Camp Abilities. He plans to go to college to become an assistive technology specialist, a role where he can help other blind and visually impaired people learn how to use technology. For now, Andrew is excited that he has a blind hockey team close to home, somewhere he can play, compete, and make new friends.

Bob is glad to have given Andrew the opportunity to play, just like any other child. But as a new hockey dad, Bob is learning that the worry never truly goes away. He thinks of the size of the puck flying in his son’s direction during the game and knows it could have knocked him out if it were a few inches in another direction. He tries to talk himself out of being worried, but Andrew doesn’t help.

“I wouldn’t even call what you’ve gotten a true bell ringer,” Bob says to Andrew, who smiles.

“You haven’t seen what they do in training camp,” he says. “Let me just put it that way.”

Bob shakes his head. “That’s why they don’t allow parents in practice,” he says.