When this gang of school kids hits the ice at Pearkes arena, it’s all laughs and screams and pure joy of skating. Being visually impaired doesn’t enter into the equation.
Ten blind or partially blind students from the Greater Victoria School District had full reign of the arena Friday afternoon with players from the Spectrum hockey academy, in partnership with Courage Canada Hockey for the Blind.
It’s a rare chance for the kids to be on the ice with visually-impaired peers, and in a way that is far safer than a public open skate.
“For many it’s the first time on the ice,” said Daphne Hitchcock, a teacher of visually impaired students for SD 61. “This is a really nice opportunity for the kids to connect with one another. The social connections are huge. They talk about this all year.”
The ice time is normally for the scheduled practice of the Spectrum hockey academy. Now the third year running in Victoria, the Spectrum students are more than happy to mentor visually-impaired counterparts.
“It’s just nice to see everyone having fun. I love being here. Everyone choses to be here,” said hockey player Riley Bower, a Grade 11 student. “We do this because we want to. It’s a lot of fun and the kids are amazing.”
Darren Smith, director of Spectrum hockey academy, said the session a benefit to his players – the academy is about a lot more than playing hockey.
“Our philosophy at Spectrum is that the kids need to be great hockey players but also great people. Hockey is a tool to teach about life and this is an incredible learning opportunity for the kids,” he said. “The (players) often say this is the best day of the year. It’s a unique experience.”
A wide range of visually impaired kids took to the ice, three in wheelchairs and a few first timer skaters. Mark DeMontis, Courage Canada founder, said teaching the kids to skate and play hockey is about building confidence and esteem, and for socializing.
“We use skating and hockey as a catalyst to show them they can achieve anything in life,” he said. “It’s not often these kids are in one location. They get to interact with other youth. One thing they take away is knowing they aren’t alone, that they face the same challenges.”
Hitchcock said the school district has purchased helmets, gloves and shin pads for the visually impaired program. Courage Canada, based in Toronto, is being stretched thinner as its programs become more popular, but Hitchcock wants to give her students access to the ice every year.
“We can keep the partnership going (with Spectrum), we’re trying to keep it sustained,” she said. “It’s so valuable to put money aside to do this.”