Blind skaters share a goal: Let's play hockey

Nicholas Boisvert stands near the board during a shooting drill
Nicholas Boisvert of Hutchinson stands near the board during a shooting drill. Boisvert, who grew up playing hockey, lost 80 percent of his sight six years ago and says the program has given him an opportunity to play the sport he loves again.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Nicholas Boisvert steps out onto the ice confidently. His skate blades cut into the ice, holding their edge as he accelerates through a turn and speeds up the rink.

He didn't expect to do this again.

"I lost my sight in 2012, so it's been a few years," he said.

Boisvert, 35, grew up playing hockey. He played in high school at Richfield and in intramurals in college. But he has Best disease, a degenerative condition that took about 80 percent of his vision in his late 20s.

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"I really missed hockey, and when I lost my sight it was really hard to adjust in not being able to play and then this came along and it gave me the chance to play again," he said.

He said when he stepped back out onto the ice it felt like "home, it felt like I could be happy again, being able to get out there and skate. It just felt natural."

Boisvert is one of 18 players who are part of the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey program. It's the first program of its kind in Minnesota.

"I didn't realize how big it was going to be when we first started," said Toni Gillen, disabled programs director for USA Hockey in Minnesota. "I thought we'd maybe get one or two players, but the overall amazing response we've gotten from people that were like, 'What took you so long to get this started?' So, it really is it's embracing a whole other community out there that we have not had hockey for in the past."

The emblem of the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program.
The emblem of the Minnesota Wild Blind Hockey Program. The program was launched in October, and has 18 players.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Minnesota, she said, was a bit behind in blind hockey, which was started in Canada in 1972 and was in six other states before the Minnesota Wild program began in October. Gillen expects the program to grow next year, with one group for adults and one for children.

The program has given experienced players like Boisvert the opportunity to get back on the ice. It's also given novices like Mike Hutchens a chance to learn to play the sport. Hutchens, 33, of Mankato, Minn., has downhill skied for years, and had his sights on making the Paralympics in the past in that sport.

He'd listened to the Minnesota Wild on the radio for years, but just began skating a few months ago

"I feel like I've been improving through the season. I feel that my skating has gotten better. I still have a long ways to go ... but we can always learn something new every day," he said. "You're never too old to learn."

For long-time hockey player Boisvert, the game has the same basic mechanics, but it feels a lot different.

"You still get to skate and stick handle and stuff like that, it's just you have to really, really pay attention to the sounds and smells," he said

There's also another key difference — the puck. Larger than a regular puck, it's made of metal with eight ball bearings inside.

On the ice, that makes for plenty of sound, as the pucks are passed around and shot. During practice on Wednesday for the team, volunteers helped lead the visually impaired skaters through drills by loudly tapping their sticks on the ice in the direction of where they need to skate.

Brady Bergquist, left, Emily Bergquist and one of Brady’s teammates.
Brady Bergquist, left, Emily Bergquist and one of Brady's teammates talk Emily through a skating drill Wednesday. Emily is part of the Minnesota Blind Hockey Program and Brady's Minnetonka peewees team came out to practice with the program at the Xcel Energy Center.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Down the rink, Brady Bergquist stood behind his younger sister, Emily. Brady's pee wee team from Minnetonka volunteered with the blind hockey program for this practice, and it gave him a rare opportunity to skate with Emily, who is visually impaired.

From the bench, their mother Casey Bergquist watched.

"For years she's like, 'I want to play hockey' and 'I want to get on the ice like Brady does,' and so the fact that she's able to now get on the ice and play and for them to be playing together, it just — for a mom it brings tears to your eyes," she said. "It's great. Love it."

Brady, who is 12, was grateful to get an hour just to focus on hockey with his 10-year-old sister.

"[We were] mostly passing, stick handling and skating a little bit," he said. "I don't get to skate with her much, so it was pretty fun."