AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — Blind hockey players from across the country convened at Northtown Center in Amherst earlier this month for an opportunity to train with the United States Blind Hockey Team.

With the ultimate goal of one day gaining entry into the Paralympic Games, the program invited 25 players to come train with the team in preparation for a host of upcoming international tournaments.

The USA’s blind hockey program has grown at a tremendous rate. It began in January 2018 and has already expanded to over 200 players around the country.

All players go through an international classification process. If a player is completely blind, he or she is considered a B1 player. If a player has 5% or less vision, they are considered B2. B3 players have 10% or less vision.

There is a rule that all goalies have to be B1 players — completely blind. Some rule changes were enacted to help them.

The referee is equipped with what is called a “pass whistle.” When a player crosses the puck into the offensive zone, the referee will hit a button that makes a noise to alert the goalie that the puck is in the zone. After that, it is required that at least one pass is made. When that happens, a second nose — more of a chirping sound — is made with the whistle to announce that a shot on goal is allowed.

The puck used in blind hockey is much larger than a traditional ice hockey puck, plus it is hollow and made of metal. It measures 5.5 inches in diameter, opposed to the usual 3-inch diameter. However, the most notable difference is the ball bearing inside, which makes noise as it moves around the ice.

“Because it’s a bigger size, it slows the game down. That allows our players with less vision to be able to handle the puck,” said Michael Svac, the team’s head coach and general manager.

The puck used in blind hockey is hallow and made of metal, with a ball that rattles inside. (Aidan Joly/WIVB)

Canada launched its blind hockey program before the United States, so the American team looked to that program for guidance. Canada and the United States host an annual two-game series, with Canada coming to play in Fort Wayne, Ind. in October and then the United States heading to Toronto in March.

The U.S. blind hockey team is coed. Players are all of different ages.

49-year-old Keith Haley, from central Massachusetts, has been with the program since the beginning. He broke his ankle last fall and is working his way back, but acknowledges that his playing days might be behind him. He was in Buffalo assisting with the behind-the-scenes staff.

“My goal from then until now was to help the younger generation to carry the torch and obviously that torch is for the Paralympics in the near future,” Haley said. “It’s been rewarding even from the get-go, even being on the team, wearing those three colors and three letters across your chest. There’s a lot of pride in that. To see the younger generation, these guys were 13 and 14 years old when we first started and now they’re coming of age and getting bigger, stronger, faster. That’s the goal of the program.”

Haley played hockey at the high school level and men’s leagues after high school, but a case of hereditary glaucoma, a lifelong eye disease, forced him to hang up the skates in his mid-20s. He said that he didn’t play for about 15 years until he heard about a blind hockey tryout in Connecticut. He loved it, and has been back in the game since.

“You lose a lot of things with vision loss,” Haley said. “I used to drive, so you get your license taken away. Your independence is another big one that gets taken away and hockey was a sport I never thought I’d get back. Blind hockey has given it to me.”

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Brock Kitterman, a native of Pittsburgh, has only been with the program for a short time but is already one of the leaders on the team because he is one of the higher-vision players.

“We have skaters of all different realms of vision. You have completely blind skaters, you have people who can only see a few feet in front of them up to people like myself who are more fortunate in a sense that we have greater vision,” Kitterman said. “It’s our job to communicate to those who have less vision than us where the puck is, if we have it, if the opposing team has it, if it’s in the left or right corner. … It’s really important that we as a team, not just one player but as an entire group, communicate, nonstop talk.”

(Aidan Joly/WIVB)

Buffalo is a strong hockey market that continues to vie for major events, and this month’s event was just the latest in that line.

“The big thing for us is the love that comes out of the community. We’re here in Buffalo — they reached out to us and said ‘hey, we want you come and bring your team here.’ The support from them asking is huge. We get to bring the team here and showcase it,” Svac said.

Coming to Buffalo is something that is fun for the players as well. 21-year-old Luke Miller hails from the Chicago area and is a Chicago Blackhawks fan, calling Buffalo native Patrick Kane his favorite player.

“We think it’s really exciting to continue to make connections with great communities like Buffalo and Daemen University, who’s doing such a great job hosting us for this weekend. It’s all about that, finding those connections and those stepping stones and that’s what’s going to get us to the Paralympics,” Miller said.

Blind hockey is played with a smaller net as well, so administrators at Daemen — which hosted this month’s event — made wooden boards with rope attached to them to tie to the net, making it smaller.

(Aidan Joly/WIVB)

All in all, the event was as much about the team scouting these prospects as growing the game and raising awareness.

“I have trained multiple hours per day, 365 days a year for 10 years trying to achieve my dreams of making it to international athletics and now that I’m being handed an opportunity to reach for the stars and become part of Team USA, it’s hard to put into words how much it means to be here with these wonderful guys and be able to play the sport I love so dearly,” Kitterman said. “This, to me, is my life’s work.”

Aidan Joly joined the News 4 staff in 2022. He is a graduate of Canisius College. You can see more of his work here.