This is the fifth installment of our ‘Hockey Strong’ series which will be continued for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. December’s feature is from Keith Haley, member of Team USA and the Hartford Braillers.
My love of hockey began at the age of 5 while playing in City Street Hockey Leagues in Fitchburg, Massachusetts while also watching the Boston Bruins on television. After moving to Connecticut at age 10 and realizing there were no street hockey leagues to play in, I adapted by learning how to skate in order to keep playing the game of hockey. Playing hockey on roller skates in my driveway made the transition to ice skates less daunting at the age of 13. After attending a summer hockey camp at Providence College with Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils, I was able to make the Farmington High School Varsity team as a freshman. After a high school career, I transitioned to play in men’s leagues, which is where my hockey career would end, or so I thought…
Glaucoma was prevalent in my family’s history being passed along from generation to generation. In my family, it is considered “Juvenile” Glaucoma as it begins to show its signs in the late teens or early twenties. In my case, it was my early twenties and was thought to have been caught early in its stages. This was true to some extent, but the disease got progressively worse in my mid to late twenties. The pressure in my eyes was not being controlled with simple eye drops and eventually surgery was inevitable. So went the next seven years; surgery after surgery all to try and get the pressure in my eyes down and under control. During this time, high eye pressure was taking its toll on my optic nerve, which in turn began to take my peripheral vision little by little, eventually leaving me legally blind.
During those years of surgery, I was forced to leave behind my career in the culinary arts and my position as Executive Chef of a local restaurant in Farmington, CT. At the age of thirty I had also come to the realization that my driving days were behind me, forcing me to sell my pickup truck, a tough pill to swallow for any individual regardless of age or circumstance. Along with my vision loss went some of my passions including firefighting and of course….hockey. Some things were becoming apparent – I needed to hop off the engine and hang up the bunker gear and doff the hockey bag and hang up the skates. The peripheral vision loss was too much to continue firefighting without putting myself or fellow firefighters at risk; seeing the puck or making and receiving passes on the ice was nonexistent. Despite all these things being taken away, I remained optimistic as all was not lost. Although I do not ride the fire trucks anymore, I remain a proud member of the East Farmington Volunteer Fire Department for the past 28 years only now as an Administrative Member. This allows me to continue serving my community but in a different way. Serving the community in this capacity reminds me that things could always be worse. Families suffer tragedies every day and vision loss, to me, is far from a tragedy. To me, it is a blessing.
Not everyone sees it my way, which is understandable, but as I reflect on my life over the past 10 years, it is the blessing of legal blindness that defines who I am today.
My professional life: I have the distinct opportunity to own and operate a café within a state office building through the Business Enterprise Program administered by the State of Connecticut Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind. Who would have thought that my background in culinary arts and my legal blindness could coexist?!
My personal life: I had the opportunity to advocate for the blind not only with my local State of Connecticut lawmakers, but also addressing members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. If it weren’t for my blindness, I don’t know whether I would have had the confidence or a reason to make those trips and be sure our voices were heard. Because of my blindness, I am able to continue being a productive member of society through mobility training and navigating the world in exciting new ways.
My recreational life: It is vision that I have lost, not the ability to remain active. My competitiveness turned long walks into jogs and jogs into running…..5K road races!! My blindness didn’t keep me on the couch, but challenged me to get off of it. Little did I know that was just a precursor for what was to come next – an email from an individual named Joel Klug regarding, well….blind hockey!
Haha, what a joke – blind hockey, yeah right! But it seemed legitimate. Joel came from Michigan so hockey was in his blood. After moving to Connecticut he not only lost the game of hockey, but also his vision due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). So the email he sent was to seek blind or legally blind individuals interested in playing hockey because there was an actual blind hockey team playing out of Newburgh, New York called the NY Nightshades. Being that New York was a few hours’ drive from me, I knew it would take some ride coordination to get there until I received another email from Joel alerting me to a “Try Blind Hockey” event….in the next town over from me. It sounded too good to be true, but similar to other opportunities that had come my way I wasn’t going to pass it up…..not in my own backyard. So I attended the event and what I received in return was another blessing.
It began in the locker room as I looked around at others fumbling around to find and put on their gear. It continued in the hallway as I watched volunteers help lead the blind athletes to the ice, myself included. Once on the ice, we were introduced to the iconic puck – the cow bell sounding, big-as-your-head metal puck. But it was no ordinary puck….it was a blind hockey puck! I learned a lot that night. I learned that blind hockey is certainly not a joke. I learned that being legally blind or totally blind has no limitations. And I learned that we may have coined one of the coolest names in blind hockey. At the conclusion of that event in January of 2017, the Hartford Braillers were born.
I continue to learn along the way and new things continue to be born. I learned that blind hockey is far from just a sport. It is a way of life. The lessons learned from the sport of blind hockey are immeasurable and the relationships that have been born can last a lifetime. I learned how to travel independently going from tournament to tournament with Hartford Braillers teammates Liz Bottner and gentle giant Big Jim Sadecki, both of whom are totally blind. While attending my first tournament in Pittsburgh, I learned from (now) Team Canada General Manager Luca Demontis that when I joined blind hockey, I didn’t just join a sport; I joined a family.
When asked why I play blind hockey, my answer has changed over time. On that night in January 2017, I was out playing for myself. After all that had been taken from me including my job, my license, my passions, I set out to get something back….the game of hockey! But a lot has happened since that night. I indeed joined a family and that family is why I play blind hockey today. I got the game of hockey back and now I play so others in the family never have to lose it or perhaps they just might find it. There is nothing better than going to a tournament or “Try It” event and seeing the joy of youth players out on the ice, as well as their parents watching proudly from the stands. There is a lot on the horizon for the future of blind hockey and the youth of today are one day going to carry the torch….the torch to the Paralympics!
At the 2018 Disabled Hockey Festival in Chicago, I was fortunate to hear my name called as the first round of athletes were named and invited to the first US Blind Hockey Training Camp. It was at that training camp where the first Team USA was born. Once again blindness gave me another blessing – the blessing and honor of standing on the blue line in Utica, NY shoulder-to-shoulder with my teammates while donning the red, white, and blue and listening and reflecting on our national anthem. We stood as one, all with the same disability of vision loss, but different stories that got us to that blue line.
This is my story, and I’m proud to tell it. I am proud to be a blind hockey player. I am proud to be a Hartford Brailler. I am proud to be a member of Team USA. I am proud to see the growth of our family and our sport. I am proud to know that one day Team USA will play in the Paralympics and I certainly am proud to have played a part in getting us there. I am just proud to be blind!
In this day of uncertainty the future sure seems bright doesn’t it?! Go Braillers! Go Team USA! Go Blind Hockey!