Blind Hockey - Patrick Hruby
Blind Hockey
In this up-and-coming sport for the visually impaired, players shoot, pass, and skate like their sighted peers—and keep their ears on the puck.
Words by Patrick Hruby, Photos by Noah Willman | Washingtonian | January 2024
The first time Doug Goist heard about blind hockey, he laughed. It was 2016, and one of the founders of the Washington Blind Hockey Club had asked him to attend a “try it” event. “I thought it was crazy,” says Goist, who loved watching pro and Olympic hockey before losing his vision to a genetic disease at 30. “You’ve got people on skates at high speed with boards all around. Are you going to tell me there’s a blind Formula 1 ‘try it’ event, too?” 

Goist went anyway—and has been hooked ever since. The 55-year-old Alexandria resident plays goalie for the club, which has 15 active members and has welcomed more than 150 participants since its 2016 inception. “We’ve had players as young as five and as old as 70,” says Kevin Brown, who in addition to playing and coaching is president of the WBHC. “Some of them played the game and had vision before but lost it over time. Others were born totally blind.” 

Played in Canada since the 1970s, organized blind hockey came to the US with a New York team in 2014. Today there are more than a dozen clubs across the country, including the Maine Blind Bears and the Hartford Braillers. While some rules set the sport apart—such as prohibiting white jerseys, which are hard for the visually impaired to see against the ice—it’s largely similar to the sighted version, which makes it more meaningful for players. “You become more confident,” Brown says. “You realize you can handle yourself in unfamiliar situations. It’s freeing to know you are not reliant on having somebody guide you. And damn, it’s really fun.”
Brothers Nate (in red) and Aiden McCown are 17-year-old seniors at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and members of the Washington Blind Hockey Club. Both have albanism, a medical condition that affects pigment levels in the skin, hair, and eyes and impairs their visual acuity and depth perception. “They are playing hockey with really no compromises,” says their father, Mike. “This takes vision off the table, and they can just play a sport.”
Blind hockey uses a hollow metal puck that’s three times larger than a regular version and contains eight ball bearings that rattle when the puck moves. “I don’t see the puck, I’m listening to it,” says Kevin Brown, a Washington Blind Hockey Club player and coach. “As it gets dented up during a game, it’s easier to hear. But it also gets jagged and has more mass—so if you get hit, you will feel it.”
Doug Goist arrives at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, where the WBHC practices on weekend mornings. When traveling, he says, “I get noticed in the airport when I have my stick and giant equipment bag and my white cane. I have to tell them, ‘Yes, this is mine. I’m a hockey player.’ ”
To give defensive players more time to track the puck, teams must complete one pass after crossing the blue line prior to being able to score. Referees use an electronic “pass whistle” to audibly signal that the pass has been made.
Because the adapted puck is quiet when airborne, slap shots are banned and nets are a foot shorter than in sighted hockey—keeping the puck low so players can hear it. “Goalies are always slightly behind where the puck is, because the sound still has to travel to you,” Goist says. “If I’m playing in a rink with a big ventilation fan, I’m trying to block out that hum.”
The white dots on the back of Goist’s helmet spell out his name in Braille. Above that is the WBHC logo, an all-seeing eye. “It’s from the back of the $1 bill,” says Brown, who works as a marketing manager for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. “It’s meant to be ironic,” he adds with a laugh.
While all players in the sport are legally blind, impairments vary. “One person might be able to see other players across the length of the ice but not see the puck,” Brown says. “Another might be able to read the name on a faraway jersey, but it’s like looking through a paper-towel tube.” Players with less loss generally play center or forward; those with greater or total loss, like Brown, play defense or goalie. “Playing is like going to the bathroom in the middle of the night,” he says. “You figure out how to do it without tripping over everything.”
Last March, four players from the WBHC—including Brown and Goist—played for Team USA against Canada in a three-day tournament in Toronto. “Hockey is their religion up there,” Goist says. “For the first game, they brought in, like, 2,000 schoolkids to watch us. That actually helped me! As soon as they started cheering and the puck was far away, I was like, ‘Oh no, oh no,’ because I knew that meant Canada had the puck and was streaking toward me.” Brown and other players hope blind hockey will become a Paralympics sport. Six to eight national teams are required for inclusion, Brown says—but currently only the US and Canada have squads. “There’s growth in England, there’s a team in Finland, there are activities in Russia,” Brown says. “Half a dozen other countries are starting programs. But they’re not at the elite level yet. The earliest we might see something is 2030.”
To ensure a level playing field, goalies are required to be completely blind with no light perception. That means donning a blindfold—or, in Goist’s case, eye patches with stickers. “I tried cloth and Velcro sleep shades,” he says. “But I sweated so much that they rolled up like a taquito and bothered my eyelids. The stickers were just to psych myself up.”
Aiden McCown leads Goist off the ice. Though he didn’t compete for Team USA in Toronto, McCown participated in lower-level games during the event and wants to play for the national team in the future. “I’m optimistic that it will become a Paralympic sport,” he says. “I hope so. I’ll be disappointed if I never play at the international level.”
Aiden McCown practices his stick-handling at home in Silver Spring while brother Nate looks on (left). At an NHL game in New Jersey (below), Nate uses the zoom function on his smartphone to watch the on-ice action. “When you feel like you can do something just as well as someone with regular vision, it boosts your confidence,” Aiden says. “It shows that despite any obstacles you might have, there’s always a way.”

Nate McCown, who like his brother has partial sight and also plays for a sighted club hockey team, feels the burn after a WBHC practice. “It’s the same game, just as hard and intense,” he says. “But it’s really fun to make connections, see how people who are older are going through their lives with their vision challenges, and bond over a game that we love.”