Coaches Corner: Becoming the Elite Athlete to Represent Team USA in the Paralympics

By Michael Svac, Head Coach United States Blind Hockey Team

USA Blind Hockey Brief – In USA hockey history, one of the greatest hockey stories occurred during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York that eventually became known as the “Miracle on Ice”. If you watched the movie or read the story you would know that this 1980 Olympic team was much different than any other hockey team, the moment in time was different, the coaching and playing style was different, and even how the game was played was different. I was always very interested in the story of how the 1980 Olympic team was selected to represent USA and that the process to select this elite team of athletes took the coaching staff over 18 months before they had their final roster selected. An amazing story with an amazing ending.

One of the questions I always get as the Head Coach for the USA National Blind Hockey Team is “how can I get the opportunity to play for Team USA?” The easy answer is, “you have to earn it,” but in reality there are many variables that are used in drafting an elite team (and for blind hockey it is not the same formula that Herb Brooks used when he selected the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team nor the same formula that the USA Olympic Sled Hockey Team uses to identify its elite Paralympic team). And for both examples, the age range of these athletes were in their prime (for example: the average age for the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team was 21 years with the age range from 19 to 25 years old).

For blind hockey in the USA, it is still relatively new and throughout the country we are still searching for elite athletes that can play the game at a highly competitive level and meet the specific requirements set forth for international blind hockey competition. For this article, I will start off by reviewing:

  • The process to be selected / identified as an elite blind hockey player
  • The critical rules for blind hockey competition that impacts the selection process
  • The selection criteria (using some basic math as an example of what is considered)
  • The players’ vision (what a player can see versus what a player cannot see)

First off, every player who will compete at the international level must complete a vision examination as required by the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA).  This first step in the process will validate a player’s current vision level (what they are able to see). This is a two-step process in the United States:

  • Step 1: Initial vision evaluation by player’s personal doctor per the IBSA requirements, including completion of the IBSA Medical Diagnostics Form (click here to download the form).
  • Step 2: Final vision evaluation by an IBSA-certified classifier (all classifiers are licensed ophthalmologists). In the United States, there are only two Ophthalmologist certified by the IBSA who can conduct this evaluation and make the final vision level determination (both US doctors are affiliated with USA Hockey and the USA National Blind Hockey Team).

1. Dr. Robert Chun – Baltimore, Maryland (*Team USA’s current ophthalmologist)
2. Dr. Jeanne Derber – Denver, Colorado

For clarification, players are classified by IBSA into one of three categories for Blind Hockey Sports as Visual Classifications.  If a player is not classified as one of the following, then the player is not eligible to participate in International Blind Hockey competition.

  • B1: No light perception in either eye up to light perception, and an inability to recognize the shape of a hand at any distance or in any direction.
  • B2: From ability to recognize the shape of a hand up to visual acuity of 20/600 and/or a visual field of less than 5 degrees in the best eye with the best practical eye correction.
  • B3: From visual acuity above 20/600 and up to visual acuity of 20/200 and/or a visual field of less than 20 degrees and more than 5 degrees in the best eye with the best practical eye correction.

Currently, the official roster size for International Blind Hockey competition is thirteen players and two goalies. The team will select 8 to 9 forwards and 4 to 5 defensive players depending on visual classification. For 2019/2020 hockey season, the best blind athletes were selected considering the following criteria:

  • Official Visual Level Classification (B1, B2, B3)
  • Hockey Playing Experience at a Competitive / Organized Level
  • Player Physical Condition Level
  • Hockey Skills (stick handling, passing, shooting, positioning)
  • Skating Skills (speed, power, control, transitioning, stopping, turning, balance – with and without puck possession)
  • Knowledge of the Game
  • Communication Effectiveness
  • Ability to Adapt to Change Immediately (taking a player outside of their comfort zone – for example, player has always played left forward and during a game injury the coach must make an adjustment to have the player play defense; can the player adjust and play the position and understand his/her responsibility?)
  • Ability to Play with an Elite Team and Compete at an Elite Level
  • Ability to Represent the United States (on and off the ice)
    • Role model for younger players
    • Public appearance and media
    • Respect to teammates / coaches / team staff / referees on and off the ice
    • Promoting the sport of blind hockey
  • For Goalies:
    • Must be officially classified as a B1
    • Experience playing goalie
    • Ability to track the puck on the ice by sound
    • Ability to sustain a proper blind hockey position to minimize an open net
    • Mobility, quick actions / reactions / ability to block shots
    • Mental toughness (extreme physical contact from an airborne puck at a much greater velocity than experienced in recreational blind hockey events)
    • Ability to process information quickly from verbal queue and game situations

To bring closure to the visual classification section and tie it to the selection criteria summarized above, I want to recap the process using the 2019/2020 team selection and how visual classification plays an important part in the final selection criteria.  Here is an important piece of information to understand: Team USA cannot be a team of 13 players all with a B3 visual classification. A team is comprised of players with all three visual classifications, otherwise the team would be playing with less than five players (excluding the goalie) on the ice.

In August 2019, Team USA was selected using the criteria listed above. Players participated in a five-day camp where they were on the ice four hours every day followed by 4-5 hours of off-ice training activity. Knowing that the team selection is currently set at 13 players, coaches start with identifying the criteria based on number 1 above (the required vision level). During a game, a team can only have “13 Points” (excluding the goalie who is already a B1) on the ice at any one time. A “B3” player is calculated as 3 points, “B2” player is 2 points and a “B1” player is 1 point.  The target to maximize efficiency and opportunities is always to have 13 points on the ice and five skaters on the ice at the same time. For example, the combinations for a line could be:

Option   Players by Vision Classification   Total Points   Number of Players
  Option 1 3 – B3 Players
2 – B2 Players
  13   5
  Option 2 4 – B3 Players
1 – B1 Player
  13   5
  Option 3 2 – B3 Players
3 – B2 Players
  12   5
  Option 4 1 – B3 Player
4 – B2 Players
  11   5

Note: If a team makes an error and there are more than 13 points on the ice (example: four “B3” players and one “B2” Player) at one time there is a two-minute penalty assessed for “too many men on the ice.” For the example above, other combinations would result in only four players on the ice which would create a player advantage for the other team (a team with all B3 players could only position four players on the ice at one time (total 12 points). Five “B3” players on the ice would result in a penalty.

For reference, Team USA’s roster based on visual classification levels includes:

  • B3: 9 Players
  • B2: 3 Players
  • B1: 3 Players (including two goalies)

As a general note, Team USA does have a player who is visually classified as a B1 that is playing defense. The traditional model that was developed by the Canadians was originally designed where all B3’s played forward (most vision), all B2’s played defense (less vision) and all B1’s played goalie (no vision). At the international level today Team USA is diverse and has B3 and B2 players playing both forward and defense and a B1 player playing defense. Team USA is inclusive and has had both male and female players on the roster. The current age range for Team USA is 15 to 50.

The last piece of information I want to share about team selection is the actual visual disability. When evaluating each player on the ice and in a game situation, a critical component being evaluated is not the vision the player does not have but rather the vision they do have. Each of our athletes has a vision disability. Two players with the same exact diagnosis will most likely have a different level of ability of what they “can see” and how they see the moving puck, other players on the ice, their location on the ice, etc. So, the combination of the vision they do have with their ability to use other senses like hearing will be evaluated with the hockey and skating skills and playing experience that they bring to the game. Every second on and off the ice during a competitive event requires exceptional focus and concentration of what is going on around them. As stated earlier, one of the current defensive players for Team USA is completely blind (officially classified as a B1). As a defensive player he has to rely 100% on his ability of hearing to know where he is on the ice, where the puck is in relation to the goalie he is protecting while listening for queues from his teammates as to who has possession of the puck and have the ability to clear the puck out of the defensive zone without the ability to “see” available space of “open ice” or the position of the opposing players or his teammates. Effective and continuous verbal communication throughout the game is a critical skill required for ALL Team USA players. Remember, per the rules, our goalies are all classified as B1 so verbal communication is essential. Playing the game in silence is not an option for Team USA.

In closing, player profiles are completed for existing and potential players. For all of you that want the opportunity to be selected to Team USA, think about the following:

  • What are you doing off-ice to make you a better, stronger athlete?
    • Exercise, weight training, stick handling, shooting, physical presence on the ice
  • What are you doing to improve your skating ability?
    • Speed, power, balance, transitions, stopping, turning, skating forward / backward
  • What are you doing to better understand the game of hockey?
    • Asking questions
    • Understanding where to be on the ice with puck possession and without the puck
    • Transitioning knowledge from the game of abled body hockey to blind hockey
  • What are you doing to take care of your entire body?
    • Through nutrition, proper diet, hydration, recovery and sleep
  • What are you doing to play at a competitive / extremely physical level?
    • Ability to receive body contact during puck battle (there is no checking in blind hockey but there are open ice collisions, extreme body contact, and an increase risk of injury)
  • What are you doing to learn a new position?
    • Offensive player may be needed to play defense
    • Can you adapt to different players on your line?
  • What are you doing to improve your other senses? 
    • Including hearing and improving ability to follow sound
    • Lower vision players must be able to locate a puck by sound and be ready to react – can you accept / receive a long pass from a teammate that you cannot see? Can you make a pass to a teammate based on voice recognition, stick taping signals, etc….?
    • Ability to multitask (concentrate on the moment in the game while verbally communicating and listening for addible queues)
  • What are you doing to prepare physically and mentally?
    • Are you ready to compete at the highest level of competition?
    • Can you give it all you can for 45 minutes in a game situation?
    • Can you maintain communication at the same level throughout the entire game?
  • Can you be a TEAM Player?
  • Do you WANT to represent your Country in the Paralympics? …… if so start now!

The coaching staff for Team USA gathers information throughout the year from events like the Blind Hockey Classic, Disabled Hockey Festival, and local blind hockey events. We obtain feedback from other coaches from programs across the country and receive video footage from local game events. We watch for new players, help start new programs, participate in Try-Hockey events and do everything we can to grow the sport of Blind Hockey. The more players in the program, the better we can develop all potential talent. The coaches are always evaluating potential players for Team USA and those that demonstrate the core values of an elite athlete will be invited to our summer evaluation and development camps. But it all starts with You.

Currently, Team USA only has 13 open spots for players and 2 open spots for goalies each year. Take the opportunity to come to St. Louis in October for the Blind Hockey Classic as the Team USA coaching staff will be in attendance evaluating all players that participate.

Remember to always bring your best on and off the ice as we do evaluate the person just like Coach Herb Brooks did back in 1980. Hockey is for Everyone. Be part of something very special and keep playing the game.

Categories: Coach

Tags: , ,

%d bloggers like this: