TORONTO - Slowly, Mark DeMontis carries the puck down the ice, deking out his opponents, stick handling with ease.
He pauses, turns away from an oncoming player, then charges the net, releasing a mighty slap shot. The sound of puck meeting metal rings out, echoing in the empty arena on this chilly Saturday morning. Crossbar. No goal.
"So close!" he yells, chuckling as he skates back to centre ice with a teammate. From the stands, you'd think he's a regular 22-year-old hockey-loving guy, who organized a friendly game of shinny with his buddies. You'd never suspect that DeMontis is legally blind.
Five years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare optic disorder that left him with minimal peripheral vision. At 17, Mark had to give up his dream of one day playing in the NHL.
"There were some dark times, definitely," he says, after the game ends. "But I knew I had to bounce back. Now I'm just trying to make a difference."
In 2008, DeMontis founded Courage Canada, a group that aims to bring visually impaired Canadians the game of blind hockey. The biggest difference in blind hockey is a slightly enlarged puck, filled with piano keys so it's constantly making noise.
"Just letting them know that it's out there, that all kids can play Canada's game – that's what I want."
But his dreams don't end there.
Inspired by Canadian cross-country skier Brian McKeever - the first blind athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games – Mark's ultimate goal is to bring blind hockey to the Paralympics.
"McKeever is breaking boundaries, that's for sure," he says. "That guy is really pushing all the limits. He's getting the message out there that being blind doesn't really mean anything's out of the question."
In March, DeMontis will carry the Paralympic torch through downtown Toronto, as it makes its way to Vancouver – and that’s a start.
“It won’t happen today, and it won’t happen this 2010,” he says. “But you’ve got to dream – it pushes you toward your goals.”
There are big obstacles ahead, DeMontis admits. Blind hockey is only played in Canada, largely because other nations just aren’t aware the game exists.
“The biggest step is always going to be the awareness factor,” he says. That’s why, this summer, DeMontis inline-skated from Toronto to Vancouver – raising $60,000 for Courage Canada and spreading the word about the game.
For Cameron Williams – who made the long journey across Canada beside his childhood friend – the trip was unforgettable. Walter Gretzky welcomed the boys into his Brantford, Ont., home, and slung his son’s Stanley Cup jerseys on his visitors. They also met hockey legends Johnny Bower and Ron Ellis along the way.
“It was unreal,” Williams recalls. But a blind 10-year-old boy in Kelowna, B.C. sticks out in Williams’ mind as the best moment from the 115-day journey. “What happened in that boy’s face, seeing the way he looked up to Mark – it was just one kid, one day – but it was awesome,” Williams said.
The rules of blind hockey
-Shots must stay below three feet
-All high sticking calls are five minute majors.
-Players are allowed 18 inches of grace on offsides
-Putting your stick on top of the puck does not allow the puck to rattle – so it’s an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
Watch the guys complete their ‘Quest to the West’ Here