USA Hockey hosted its annual Disabled Hockey Festival over the past two weekends in Wesley Chapel, FL. Minnesota Disabled Hockey once again had a strong showing as five Minnesota Warrior and four sled teams participated in the events, as well as four representatives from the inaugural Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey team.
The Minnesota Warriors sent three teams from the Twin Cities area and two more teams from Duluth. The five teams had a combined 10-5 record in pool play and four of them moved onto the championship round. In the American Division, Kris Fay led the Twin Cities team to a 6-2 win over Duluth in the championship with a four-goal game. Duluth prevailed in the Liberty Division though. They topped the Twin Cities team 2-0 in the semifinals and then beat the Pittsburgh Warthogs 5-1, fueled by Aaron Newberry’s hat trick to win the division title.
Two adult (Minnesota Wild and Rochester Mustangs) and two youth (Minnesota Wild and Hope Inc.) sled hockey teams participated in the second weekend of the festival. The Minnesota Wild adult team rode a stingy defense, only allowing five goals in four games, all the way to the Tier II Championship game but fell 4-1 to the Colorado Avalanche. The Rochester Mustangs had an exciting weekend in the Tier V division including a 4-3 shootout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Minnesota Wild and Hope Inc. youth teams faced off with some great competition as they both competed in the top division.
Nick Boisvert and Shawn Hewson joined coaches Lonny Evans and Chris Pettengill as the first representatives from Minnesota at the festivals’ blind hockey division, which is only in its second year. The players were divided into teams based on sight and skill and competed in a round robin tournament. Hewson, who is in his first year of playing organized hockey, took notes throughout his journey and shared what the experience meant to him below.
By: Shawn Hewson
I am 51 years old, and up until this year, I had never played an organized hockey game in my life. I have Usher Syndrome which is vision impairment combined with hearing impairment, which has limited my ability to play hockey despite ice skating since I was young. My vision is roughly 12-15 degrees in each eye due to Retinitis Pigmentosa. I wear a Cochlear Implant (CI) in my left ear and a behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid in my right ear.
When I first found out about the inaugural Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey program back in early October, I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be more involved in the blind and deaf/blind communities. I had just written a story for the Usher Syndrome Society on their website, and the blind hockey program was a perfect opportunity for me to embark on.
I participated in the weekly practices of Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey and really enjoyed the great workouts and new friendships while sharing the same passion for the game of hockey.
In late December, I was asked by my coaches if I wanted to go to Tampa Bay, FL for the Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival. My first reaction was, “No way! I have never played real hockey games before and I will get slaughtered.”
I was comfortable with our low-key practices doing drills and some 2-on-2 scrimmages, but I had a number of questions and fears. Thankfully, my teammate Nick, who is an incredible player, and coaches Chris and Lonny were already committed to Tampa, and I received a ton of encouragement from family, friends, teammates, and my coaches/directors. Then, USA Blind Hockey reps Kevin Shanley and Matt Morrow pushed me over the edge when they answered most of my questions and emphatically told me “GO TO TAMPA!”.
Leading up to the trip, Nick, Chris, Lonny, and I embraced group-text on our phones as we prepped for ‘Mission Tampa’. Mission Tampa was simply to have fun with the games, grow our connections, and represent the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey program with class.
When I woke up the first morning in Florida, I was distraught with the jitters. I really felt like I didn’t belong there, and this was way out of my comfort zone. I had never played an organized hockey game before, had no idea what the game will look like, how good these players are or if I would be able to hear the whistles and my coaches in an actual game.
After a couple hours of reminding myself about Mission Tampa, encouragement from our group, and some Tums from Lonny, I worked up the courage to keep pushing forward. I figured that once I got a glimpse of the scene and got out on the ice the adrenaline should start to flow just like at practices at home. After all, every player had sight impairment and was in the same boat as me, right?
The purpose of the first session was to evaluate skill and sight of the players of whom all will be split up into four evenly matched teams to play a round robin tournament for the weekend. Eventually, the top two teams will play in the Championship, and the bottom 2 teams will play in the Consolation.
As Nick and I began dressing in our gear in the locker room, Chris came in and told me he found out that I wouldn’t be playing until 6:15pm. As confused as I was, I went upstairs to watch the first tryout session. I was thinking that maybe the reason there were two sessions was so that it would be less crowded on the ice with 50+ players in town.
After five minutes of consuming the scene, I turned to Lonny and I said, “These players look like they are sighted because they move around so well and FAST!”
Lonny replied calmly, “Don’t worry. They are trying out for the USA National Blind Team.”
I was able to breathe once again, and I suddenly regained some confidence. As I was getting my gear on in the locker room, I started up conversations with my neighbors and started to feel more at ease.
The first tryout session ended up being a scrimmage with three 20-minute periods and I played left wing. I was quite surprised at the speed of play, and the level of contact for blind hockey, but that is competition for you.
I struggled to keep sight of the puck being on offense for the first period of play. The coaches moved me to defense for the rest of the scrimmage, which turned out to be a much better fit. It slowed the game down for me, and therefore, I was able to better find where the action was most of the time. My speed to get back to our zone to protect our net when needed, as well as my size, proved to be a good strategy. I fell in love with being on defense.
The communication and managing of shifts were much more effective than I had imagined. I was also able to hear the whistle to a point where I could figure out what the whistle was for, most of the time. After the final buzzer, I was so thrilled having survived my very first game ever, and felt more confident. My teammates were very encouraging of my play and made me feel like an important part of the team.
After a late dinner, we all got back to the house and received an email from Matt Morrow with the four team rosters and coaches. Nick and I were placed on Team North with Matt as our head coach. Lonny and Chris were to be coaches of Team South.
There were a number of U.S. Blind Hockey National Team players on each team as well, which was pretty cool. We had Kevin Shanley, who usually plays defense for the National Team, as one of our goalies. One of my fellow defensemen was Daniel Belding from the USA National Team, and I was eager to learn from him.
For Game 1, we ended up being short a defenseman. Therefore, we had to rotate with the three of us – Daniel, Amanda Provan, and myself – which meant a lot of ice time. The coaches helped me behind the bench to make sure I understand what’s going on and provide encouragement. We wore the black USA Hockey jersey and socks, and won the game 8-4 over Team West. I had so much fun and learned a lot on positioning strategies from Daniel, Amanda, and my coaches.
Saturday was a challenge because all teams had two games to play that day. Team North was to take on Team South at 11:15am. That meant Nick and I were playing against Lonny and Chris’s team. Halfway through the second period, there was an unfortunate collision involving Nick that resulted in a concussion. He wasn’t able to play the rest of the tournament, but thankfully, he would be okay.
The second game on Saturday was tough, especially since we were shorthanded after Nick’s injury. The scoring went back and forth and headed into the third period with a 4-4 tie. We scored 4 goals in the closing period to take the game 8-4, post a 3-0 record and qualify for the championship game.
Looking back, it’s kind of surprising that of all the games we played in the tournament, the one I didn’t have any jitters to deal with was the championship game on Sunday morning. I guess I was simply having too much fun and feeling very comfortable out on the ice. After the national anthems were sung, it was GAME ON once again!
The game featured many hard-fought battles for the puck and a high level of effort from both teams. Despite my fatigue, I was happy with my performance in blocking several crucial shots on goal, breaking up plays, and protecting our zone. We posted our second shutout of the tournament with a 6-0 triumph to capture the gold. After shaking hands and basking in the awards ceremony, both teams posed for an on-ice photo together. Win or lose, there were many smiles.
As we headed of the ice, the realization sunk in that I was a part of something that was truly remarkable. Many great people came together to create a platform such as the Disabled Hockey Festival to allow players to play the game and embrace the passion of hockey with others who have the same kind of impairments, along with great coaches who understand our needs. New friendships were formed. Dreams were lived.
I couldn’t help but think of a line I wrote in my story for Usher Syndrome Society website and how true it was:
“If you are to persevere in your struggles and overcome obstacles, it is essential to step out of your comfort zone. This allows you to grow in strength, confidence, and courage over time.”
Mission Tampa was accomplished, plus something even greater. I am a man of faith, and I try my best to trust and follow what God has in store for me. Instead of asking God “why me?” as I take on Usher Syndrome each day, I pray to Him to “use me!” Together, we can overcome and accomplish anything! Lonny, Chris, and Nick – I am forever grateful for you guys for encouraging me along the way. What an experience of a lifetime!