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Minnesota's 1st blind hockey program providing unique opportunities

The 18 registered members of the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program and their on-ice helpers skated at Xcel Energy Center this week. Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program1 / 3
Blind hockey players use a specially-designed puck that is larger and moves slower than traditional pucks. It is filled with ball bearings that rattle, allowing players to track it by sound. Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program2 / 3
The logo designed for the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program features the team name in braille.3 / 3

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- An ardent follower of the Minnesota Wild since the NHL franchise’s first game in 2000, Mike Hutchens of Mankato, Minn., didn’t need to ponder much when offered the chance to meet someone from the team.

While other fans would’ve chosen star forward Zach Parise or stalwart goalie Devan Dubnyk, Hutchens wanted to visit the pressbox to meet radio hosts Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid. Since he was a teen and first started following the Wild, Hutchens, who was born blind, has relied on those voices to paint him a picture of every save, shot and win.

This week, Hutchens and a handful of others with full to partial vision loss got another treat, as the Wild provided an hour of ice time at Xcel Energy Center for members of Minnesota’s first organized blind hockey team.

For Hutchens, 33, the opportunity to skate at the home of the Wild came less than a week after he got his wish to meet with Kurtz and Reid in the pressbox during a game and even got the $50 gift certificate given to those who appear on the radio between periods.

The 18 registered members of the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program, which is the largest such organization in the country, range in age from 9-50. They play hockey with a puck that is larger and moves slower than a traditional hockey puck. And the special puck is filled with ball bearings, so it makes noise anytime it moves, allowing players with visual impairment to locate it easier.

Players are also shadowed on the ice by helpers who point out where they are on the rink, and where to aim when taking a shot on goal.

Matt Scherber of St. Michael, Minn., has played hockey with friend Ryan Erlandson since they were children growing up in Hanover, Minn. Scherber lost his sight when he fell off a two-story building as a high school senior, but that didn’t stop his desire to play sports.

On Wednesday night, Erlandson shadowed Scherber on the ice, as these life-long friends got a hockey thrill.

“It was nice, but a lot different,” said Scherber, 32, who has been playing an adapted version of hockey for eight years. “I could see before (the accident), so I know what this place looks like. I know how big it is and everything. It felt nice to be on the ice that professionals play on.”

Typical of people who have lost their sight, they are able to sense the proximity of the boards and of other players on the ice.

“I can tell if someone is right next to me because of the density,” Scherber said. “They say that if you lose a sense, your other senses gain 5 percent. I lost my senses of sight and smell.”

“He’s part dolphin now,” Erlandson said, to roars of laughter from the group. “I’m just here to help Matt as much as possible. I’m humbled by his situation. We’ve been playing hockey together since we were four or five years old, so I’m happy that we can keep playing.”

USA Hockey helping

That ability to play happens thanks in large part to Toni Gillen of Eagan, Minn., who is USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Director for Minnesota. For years she has organized special hockey programs for players with learning disabilities, sled hockey programs for players with paralysis and other physical limitations, and warrior hockey programs for veterans who have been wounded in combat.

Following the lead of similar programs in Canada, she helped start the blind hockey program this year, with help from the Wild, who designed a logo and provide jerseys and warm-up suits featuring the team’s name in braille.

With such a wide range of ages on the ice, Gillen said the eventual goal is to have separate teams for blind youth and adult players. All players on the ice are legally blind, and the position one plays depends on their level of visual acuity.

“If you can see more, you’re going to be a forward,” Gillen said. “The goalies are typically completely blind and if not, they’re blindfolded.”

For the players, blind hockey is clearly less focused on the nuances or techniques, and more about the simple opportunity to be on the ice, doing what they love regardless of physical ability.

“Hockey is for everybody, whether you have a disability, confined to a wheelchair, whatever, you shouldn’t let your handicap stop you from doing what you want to do,” Hutchens said. “Blind hockey is for anyone with visual impairments that wants to get involved.

"I’m really grateful that they put this together and went out of their way to make this happen.”

More information is available at the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mnwildblindhockey/

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