‘My eyes are my ears’: How this goalie stops the puck in a hockey series for the legally blind

Most goalies struggle to see the puck as it’s fired at them through a maze of sticks, skates and battling bodies, but Joey Cabral can’t see the puck at all.

To stop it, he’s got to hear it.

“For sighted people, it’s their eyes. For me, with zero vision, my eyes are my ears … It’s all about sound.”

Cabral, of Toronto, is playing goal in a new hockey series where all the players are legally blind. The Carnegie Elite Blind Hockey Series began in Toronto on Friday and runs through the weekend at the Mattamy Centre, formerly the site of Maple Leaf Gardens.

Cabral, who’s been completely blind since he was four due to glaucoma, said the series uses a special puck that allows the players to hear where it is.

“It’s three times bigger, I would say, and it’s made out of metal and it has about eight ball bearings in it that rattle.” 

A charity called Canadian Blind Hockey, in partnership with the Carnegie Initiative for Inclusion and Acceptance in Hockey, is hosting the series. The initiative, launched a year and a half ago, is aiming to change hockey culture to make it more diverse and inclusive. Games are free to watch.

‘Everybody deserves a chance to play’

The series is named in honour of the late Herb Carnegie, who became the first Black hockey player to reach the NHL in the late 1950s after facing enormous racism that hampered his career for decades. The initiative tries to ensure “opportunity and access to hockey everywhere,” including bringing the game to people who are visually impaired. 

“Everyone deserves a chance to play,” Bryant McBride, co-chair of the Carnegie Initiative, told CBC Toronto on Friday.

“It’s really about exposure. It’s about making sure that people know that people of all abilities can play the game. It’s not just about race, it’s not just about gender, or socio-economic level. It’s about ensuring that people see people in all aspects.”

McBride said the series is showcasing amazing athletes.

The Mercurys play the Aces in Game 1 of the Carnegie Cup Elite Blind Hockey Series in Toronto on Friday. Three games will be played in all at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. (CBC)

Canadian Blind Hockey said the series features hockey players from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The players have been drafted into two teams to showcase the “fastest, most skilled, and most competitive version” of the sport, the charity said. The two teams will play three games in all.

To be eligible to compete, players must have only 10 per cent vision or less, and goalies must be completely blind. 

To honour Carnegie, the names of the teams in the series are a tribute to the last two minor league teams he played for in his career: the Aces and the Mercurys.

‘It’s really cool’

Brian Burke, who used to be the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and is a former Hockey Night In Canada analyst, said players have to have a “pretty severe sight impairment” to play.

“I’ve never seen blind hockey until just now. It’s amazing,” said Burke, who is a member of the Carnegie Initiative’s Canadian board of directors and is president of hockey operations with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins

“I’m in awe of watching these kids. It’s a new option. It’s really cool.”

Brian Burke
Brian Burke, president of hockey operations with the Pittsburgh Penguins and a member of the Canadian board of the directors for the Carnegie Initiative, says players have to have a ‘pretty severe sight impairment’ to play. (CBC)

On its website, Canadian Blind Hockey said the series is a pilot project that aims to create the Blind Hockey League, and it represents the “premier competitive” opportunity for blind hockey players.

“The objective of the event is to follow an NHL model by drafting the top blind hockey players from around the world to compete in the Para sport of blind hockey at the highest level possible,” the group said.

“We change the lives of children, youth, and adults who are blind or partially sighted through our programs, which include school field trips, youth teams, development camps, regional tournaments, and our flagship Canadian National Blind Hockey Tournament,” its website reads. 

“Our programming spans the country from coast-to-coast while supporting Canadian hockey players who are blind or partially sighted of all ages, from playing on the pond to proudly standing on the podium.”

Meantime, Cabral is as determined as any goalie to keep the puck out of his net any way he can.

“As long as it’s on the ice, and it’s moving, you can hear it, but once it’s off the ground, and it’s in the air, really, it’s just an instinct,” he said.

After that, he said: “Hope for the best.”

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