Matt Salli will compete in an upcoming tournament like the 2016 Canadian Blind Hockey National Tournament in Toronto

Blind players ready for Langley hockey tourney

A visually impaired Langley man has laced up his skates again after 35 years.

As a sighted and a blind athlete, Matt Salli has competed in a number of sports.

“When I was a kid, I played a lot of hockey, before my vision went down,” said the Walnut Grove man.

After he lost most of his sight, he continued his athletic pursuits, running track for Canada at the 1984 Paralympic Games, and competing as part of the only Canadian duo in a Tour de France event for disabled riders, taking a medal in a sprint on the final day of the race.

Salli was also a Paralympic torchbearer in 2010.

But he’s a relative newcomer to blind hockey, having started just last year. After a year getting used to skating again, Salli will lace up for a two-day tournament that will bring players from across the country to Langley’s Sportsplex.

Visually impaired since 1979, like many legally blind people, Salli has a small amount of sight remaining.

“There’s various sight classifications,” he explained.

Blind hockey is designed for players with zero to 10 per cent vision. Players wear full hockey gear, but shoot and pass a larger, slower metal puck.

It’s loaded with BBs and makes a lot of noise so it can be found, Salli said.

A defenceman, Salli has to cover a sizable area, but opposing players can’t simply skate in and around him. Players can’t simply take the puck and head straight for the net in blind hockey.

“There has to be at least one pass,” he said.

There is a huge amount of verbal communication during the game among players, he said.

He noted that the game uses smaller nets, and that the goalies are often completely blind.

“It gets pretty competitive,” he said.

Salli had wanted to play for years, but finally found the opportunity last year. A friend loaned him some equipment.

“I hadn’t played hockey in 35 years,” said Salli, who described his first game as “a rude awakening.”

Wearing rented skates in the wrong size, he stepped out onto the rink.

“I swore somebody tilted the ice,” he said.

His legs went one way, and his body went the other.

But he still had fun, and soon he had better skates and his own gear.

“My skating’s improved a lot,” Salli said.

Many of the players are in their 20s and 30s, and Salli is one of the “older guys” on the ice.

But despite the competitive nature of some of the games, everyone remains friendly.

“We’re all encouraging,” Salli said. “No one gets ripped if you make a mistake.”

Mistakes do happen – there are collisions and people go down, but that’s all part of the game.

He regularly joins his team for ice time at Lower Mainland rinks. However, he’s really looking forward to the upcomng tournament, as it’s in his backyard. It’s a big change heading a few blocks to the Langley Sportsplex compared to spending hours on the bus heading out to arenas closer to Vancouver.

This weekend, Salli will be one of the local players who take part in the 2016 Western Regional Blind Hockey Tournament.

Salli’s team, the Vancouver Eclipse, will meet up with players from the Calgary Seeing Ice Dogs, the Edmonton SeeHawks, the Toronto Ice Owls, Les Hiboux de Montreal, and the Washington Wheelers.

Because there won’t be enough players coming from back east to make up complete teams, the players will be shuffled together into two new teams, said Salli.

They’ll play games starting at 12:15 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, with a Learn to Skate and Try Blind Hockey event at 3:45 p.m. The final game will be on Sunday, at 10:15 a.m. Spectators are welcome.

The tournament is organized by Canadian Blind Hockey, in partnership with Accessible Media Inc. and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, along with provincial sports grants.

 

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