Mark Demontis crossed the finish line in British Columbia on October 16th, 2009. He had inline-skated almost 5,000 kilometres from Toronto to Vancouver to raise money for his charity Courage Canada, that conducted programs all over the country teaching blind and partially sighted children how to play hockey. The journey took 111 days. (The story the Vancouver Canucks did about the epic trip is linked at the bottom of the page.) Two years later he completed the cross-country concept and the fundraising element by skating from Pier-21 in Halifax back to his greater Toronto town of Weston.
This September 1st, he’s at it again.
This time Demontis will be raising funds and awareness for the organization known since 2016 as Canadian Blind Hockey (CBH), by skating from Windsor, Ontario to Ottawa, a distance of 1,000 kilometres including a couple of zig-zags. It’ll be a team effort this time around, with four blind skaters paired off and in a relay with four sighted skaters. CBH’s women’s coordinator Laura Mark will join the effort in Toronto.
Since the first trek a dozen years ago, Demontis and his cohorts have been building their cause rather proficiently. They’ve conducted an annual Canadian National Blind Hockey Tournament in Toronto every non-Covid year since 2013, involving players from across the country, including players from the Vancouver Eclipse blind hockey team.
“That tournament is more cause-related than high performance,” Demontis says. “It’s the marquee event for the charity. But the west has won it. One year they beat Canada-East and the USA team.”
This November in Calgary the western region will hold its own annual tournament. Before Covid, the participation numbers in BC and Alberta were growing robustly. There’s a kid’s division, a youth camp, and a women’s program associated with the event.
Another Vancouver-based guy is Matt Morrow, the Executive Director of the Canadian Blind Hockey association and a director of the International Blind Ice Hockey Federation (IBIHF). Morrow is fully sighted and has been working with Demontis on running programs since the beginning.
“It’s remarkable the passion these kids, these players, have for the game,” Morrow stated. “It’s amazing to watch their growth and development and simply to have the sport opened up to Canadians of all ages and abilities. Opportunity is the key word.”
Canadian Blind Hockey has run a range of programs for children and has held ongoing events and one-offs from Nova Scotia all the way to White Horse in the Yukon. It’s mostly with dollars from corporate sponsorships, private fundraising and small grants from the federal and provincial governments. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, blind hockey, until one realizes there are about 1.5-million Canadians with mild to severe vision loss, 250,000 of them in British Columbia. Many of these individuals want to play hockey, or in the case of those who lost sight in childhood or in their teens years, continue playing it.
Demontis is an example of the latter. He was a decent junior player who began losing his sight to Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) at the age of seventeen. It degenerated quickly and with it his realistic plans of getting a scholarship to play college hockey in the US. Now 34, he has lived without about 95% of his sight for the last decade-and-a-half. That last five percent is no picnic either, it’s as if he’s viewing things while under water and only with peripheral vision. Yet he still can skate, he possesses a wicked wrist shot, and he’s a constant on the Canadian national team.
A blind hockey puck is metal, hollow, and full of ball bearings, about four or five times the size of a standard puck. Ironic to some, by rule, goaltenders are fully blind and rely completely on hearing the puck as it is passed around and shot. Opposing teams must pass the puck at least once after crossing the blueline. This prevents partially sighted players from going end to end with the puck making a minimum of noise. Once the pass is made, the referee blows a shrill whistle, higher pitched than the standard one that stops game action, and the goalie knows a shot can be expected. They protect a net 2/3rds the height of a standard NHL goal to help discourage high shots. One, they can’t see the head-hunters coming, and two, the goalie can’t hear the puck if it’s not on the ice
The ultimate goal is making blind hockey a Paralympic sport. That means getting enough countries to play, then establishing a series of world championships, and then eventually applying for entry to the Paralympics. They’re on their way. The US program has taken off over the last decade, the Swedes, Finns, and British have started programs and added players quickly, with an eye on Russia and others. Six teams is the minimum; the Canadians look forward to hosting a first world championship.
“The idea that for the first time countries can come together and celebrate the growth and compete for gold,” said Demontis, “it would really be a celebration of the game globally.”
The effort to make that dream a reality continues in two weeks.
To chip in a bit to help these groundbreaking Canadians, click this link.
To see the story the Vancouver Canucks posted after Demontis arrived on his epic trip, click here.